Oct. 19, 2009

For contest, it's not what you know, but what you can learn

Every fall around this time, a few dozen students from across campus -- divided into teams of three -- compete over four days to solve a math problem.

But if the Cornell Mathematics Contest in Modeling (MCM) sounds straightforward or tame, Amrish Deshmukh '10, a member of last year's winning team, describes it differently.

"The MCM is probably the closest thing I have to an undergraduate war story," he said.

And he's looking forward to doing it again this year.

The contest, scheduled this year for Nov. 6-10, is actually a race to find answers to a real-world question -- where to place walkways on the Arts Quad to maximize convenience and aesthetics while minimizing cost, for example; or writing guidelines for designing bicycle wheels to optimize performance on a given track.

Participants can brainstorm with each other, use online or printed reference materials, write their own software or use existing computer programs. But they must agree on a strategy, manage their time wisely, be creative and work quickly.

Some knowledge of math and programming is important, said Alex Vladimirsky, assistant professor of math and contest co-organizer, but participants also need good writing skills, an eye for spotting relevant details amid mountains of data and the ability to work well on a team.

"It truly is not as much about what they know already, but what they can internalize in the space of three days," Vladimirsky said.

Last year, the Cornell team of Deshmukh, Matthew Guay '10 and Rudolf Stahl '09 earned an "Outstanding" designation in the international competition, placing in the top nine of 1,675 teams from 13 countries. Another Cornell team earned a "Meritorious," finishing in the top 18 percent.

Vladimirsky will give a related lecture, "Mathematical Models: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Monday, Oct. 19, at 4:30 p.m. in the math lounge on the fifth floor of Malott Hall.

Information and training sessions for the local MCM will be held Oct. 27 and Nov. 4; both from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in 253 Malott.

The departments of mathematics and operations research co-sponsor the MCM. Winners get Cornell Store gift certificates and go on to compete in the International Mathematical Contest in Modeling Feb. 18-22.

For more information: http://www.math.cornell.edu/~mcm/.