May 28, 2013

A team of students from Bucknell placed high in the 2013 Mathematical Contest in Modeling
From the left: Bucknell students Li Li '16, Rachel Ren '15 and Kristina Li '14 with Associate Professor of Mathematics Linda Smolka.

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By Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Design the perfect brownie pan. It's a challenge that, at first, might not seem as if it would intimidate some of the brightest young minds from around the world. But when first-year computer science and engineering major Li Li saw that the problem was one of the two from which his team had to choose for the 2013 Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM), he was nervous.  

"To be frank, I was totally lost when I saw the problems for the first time," Li recalled. "They seemed unsolvable."

Of course, the problems were a long way from two plus two. Li and his teammates — sophomore Rachel Ren, also a computer science and engineering major, and junior mechanical engineering major Kristina Li — chose the brownie pan problem because Kristina had just begun delving into lessons on heat transfer in her engineering classes. The team had four days to formulate a solution. One of their marathon math sessions lasted 26 hours.

"It was tiring and stressful, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences I've had at Bucknell," Li said. "We collaborated with each other to explore and develop models, and it turned out to be really fun."

"The competition really helped me learn how to work with people coming from different backgrounds with different knowledge and skill sets," Kristina Li said. "Together we explored, learned, collaborated — we thought about everything necessary for this competition, from the most common commercial oven and brownie pan sizes, to heat transfer equations, to the analytical hierarchy process in management decision-making. It was stressful but fun."

Associate Professor of Mathematics Linda Smolka explained that working in diverse groups is one of the main goals of the MCM, an international math competition organized by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications. Smolka was an adviser to two teams of Bucknellians competing in this year's challenge. A third team was advised by Professor of Mathematics Greg Adams, and a fourth was advised by Professor of Mathematics Ulrich Daepp.

"The competition mimics the types of challenges constantly facing organizations," Smolka said. "It gives the students a sense of what they may face in their careers, how to be a problem solver, and I think it gives them a sense of where their education is taking them."

As first-time participants in the MCM, the students weren't sure how they would fare against the 5,636 other teams from around the world that were competing. There was also the added pressure of Bucknell's past success; in 2010 a team of Bucknellians was one of only nine in the world awarded an 'Outstanding Winners' designation, the competition's highest honor.

When the results came in late last month, Li, Li and Ren were shocked to find they were named 'Meritorious Winners.' Fewer than 1 percent of the teams competing placed higher.

"We thought we might get 'Successful Participants,' or at most 'Honorable Mentions.' We never imagined that we could beat those teams from all over the world," said Ren.

The team's success already has them thinking about next year, with their expectations on the rise — hoping to be among the 2014 'Outstanding Winners.'

"Before this competition, I was not really confident with myself because, as a first-year I knew little about maths modeling and could not write essays really well," Li Li said. "But after the competition and seeing how well we did, I feel like nothing is impossible."