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Women thrive in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling

The Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) is an international multi-day mathematics competition that has been held annually by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications within the U.S. since 1985.

The competition focuses on real world mathematical modeling problems, and the groups of students participating only have a weekend to complete their chosen problem and create the solution paper as their finished product.

Jessica Solomon is an environmental science major with a minor in oceanography at Humboldt State who is working to go to grad school for atmosphere science.

“It’s training you to communicate what you’re visualizing in your head, and that was probably the biggest challenge,” Solomon said. “How do we do this model? How do we all get on the same page and be able to communicate it on a paper without our biases being too much attached to it?”

Solomon worked on the ICM problem E which focused on how climate change influences regional instability.

“Learning to work with people that you’ve never even communicated with before, on a project that involves a lot of complex decision-making, was a really good learning experience,” Solomon said.

This year, there were six problems: three MCM questions and three International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) questions. The MCM questions have more of a math base, while the ICM questions are created to be more data-based or interdisciplinary. The various types of questions are meant to make the competition more accessible for a larger variety of students, including non-mathematics majors.

“Maybe someone else has more of a math background, someone else has a coding background and someone else really loves writing the paper,” Larripa said.

Kamila Larripa, a mathematics professor here at HSU, was the advisor for the HSU groups participating in the MCM competition.

“It’s a really beautiful, organic collaboration where you’re seeing people having a chance to do the things they like the best or contribute their own unique gifts,” Larripa said.

Mathematics professor here at HSU, Kamila Larripa, was the adviser for the HSU groups participating in the MCM competition. Larripa in front of the sculpture at Mathematical Research Institute of Oberwolfach, in Oberwolfach Germany. Photo courtesy of Kamila Larripa.

At HSU, six groups of three and one group of two competed in the competition, making this the largest group of competitors the school has ever had. The students worked on their chosen problem during the second week of February from Thursday afternoon until Monday night.

All of the HSU teams received successful participant in the contest, meaning they placed in the top 54 percent for problems 1-C, and top 47 percent for problems D-F, out of a total of 10,339 foreign teams and 331 U.S. teams.

This year’s competition had the largest proportion of female competitors from HSU.

“There has been a trend where women are more likely to do this contest than some of the others that are more individually-based,” Larripa said. “So, Stanford has sent some researchers to visit and shadow a team here as part of a larger research project they’re doing that I believe is looking at gender in these math contests.”

Stanford is conducting a study on what draws women to the MCM competition. The study is being conducted by YouCubed with Jo Boaler, the director of YouCubed and professor of mathematics education at Stanford.

Jack Dieckmann is the director of research at YouCubed at Stanford and was a researcher who visited HSU to shadow one of the MCM groups.

“We wanted to understand the features of this contest in comparison to others that makes it so gender-equitable,” Jack Dieckmann said.

Amanda Hemingway, a pure math major at HSU who is graduating this semester, Briana Ramirez, a HSU mathematics major with a minor in statistics, and Jaime Sanchez, an applied mathematics major at HSU, worked on MCM problem C regarding energy production with the purpose of creating an applicable energy profile. Hemingway, Ramirez and Sanchez made up the team the Stanford group shadowed and observed for the duration of the competition.

“We are conducting a study across different U.S. universities in order to explain why, over the past 20 years of this competition, women have been not only participating in this contest, but also achieving higher results,” Dieckmann said.

The MCM competition is swiftly becoming a contest filled with female competitors. However, in many other mathematics contests, such as the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, women participate rates are low.

“We’ve both taken the Putnam before, we didn’t do well in that. It was awful — miserable,” Hemingway said.

While both Hemingway and Ramirez hated the Putnam, they enjoyed the MCM. Ramirez plans to compete the MCM again next year. Now that she is more familiar with the competition, she plans to compete by herself.

“Overall, we all came out realizing it was really nice applying all of the information we’ve learned,” Ramirez said. “It wasn’t just one class’s information going into it like a test. It was like, I learned this from stats and this from logic, so let’s put it all together. It was really nice applying it not in a classroom or test setting.”

The Stanford researchers reached out to 14 different universities and only ended up sending teams to two of them, one being HSU.

“We chose this university for a site visit over many other places because this university, especially professor Larripa, has really shown a lot of commitment for what it could mean for all of the students, especially the women competitors, in terms of mentoring, preparing and helping them to be successful,” Dieckmann said. “I see her coming around and bringing snacks and just giving as much support as possible — as much positive energy as she can towards this.”

Many of the HSU students participating in the MCM competition said they decided to compete, because Larripa encouraged them to do so for the learning experience.

“My personal experience at the school has lended to women being very involved in math and science, even when you look at the math club,” Hemingway said. “I am the vice president of the math club, and most of the people who attend the math club are female.”

Hemingway and Ramirez presented their work on problem C at the Northern California Undergraduate Mathematics Conference over spring break. All of the groups that competed presented their findings at an HSU mathematics department seminar on April 12. They also created posters for their solutions that were featured at IdeaFest.

Jessica Solomon, a HSU environmental science major with emphasis in Climate and Energy with a minor in oceanography, and Amanda Donaldson, a HSU Forestry major with an emphasis in Hydrology, work on the Mathematical Contest in Modeling ICM problem E on how climate change influences regional instability. Photo credit courtesy of Humboldt State University.

“I wanted to force myself to learn and improve on communicating and working with different types of people,” Solomon said. “Never in life will I be given an assignment and told to write an entire academic paper and solve this massive complex problem in a weekend. But it’s nice know that I can do it — that I have the skills to do it.”

While the competition was hard the competitors learned valuable lessons in collaboration and real world mathematical modeling.

“It was encouraging. I’m excited to graduate now,” Hemingway said.

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