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Watford Students Advance to Finals in Prestigious International Maths Competition

Over a weekend for 14 straight hours in late February, a group of Watford Grammar School for Boys students came together to participate in an international online maths competition. A combination of math smarts and creative thinking has added up to a spot in the finals for the team, whose submission was selected as one of the best solutions to the question of whether remote work is a fad or the future.

The students – James Elcock, Luke Powney, Hasan Shahrestani, and Hamish Starling – advanced to a finalist position as the top-ranking school in the UK in MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge (M3 Challenge), a unique competition that drew more than 2,700 11th and 12th graders in the U.S. and sixth form students in the U.K. this year. The team, whose work underwent intense scrutiny by judges in the first two rounds of assessment, has one last hurdle on April 25, when they present their findings to a panel of professional mathematicians for final validation.

Using mathematical modeling, students had to come up with a solution to a real-world question: will the shift to remote work last, and to what extent? The M3 Challenge problem asked teams to create a model to predict what percentage of workers’ jobs are remote-ready, and whether an individual worker whose job is remote-ready will be allowed to and will choose to work from home. It also had participants estimating the percentage of workers who will work remotely into the future. A total of 612 teams submitted papers detailing their recommendations. More than a third of submissions included technical computing to support and enhance their solutions, making them eligible for extra prizes for those coding skills.

“This year’s topic touches on several relevant issues we are facing as a global community,” says M3 Challenge judge and lead problem developer Karen Bliss, Virginia Military Institute. “As a result of the pandemic, many people suddenly shifted to working from home. While they may have initially been unprepared, for many people work from home is the ‘new normal.’ We’re at a critical juncture where businesses are deciding whether to allow workers to stay home, go back to the office, or have some hybrid model moving forward. There are many facets to consider, not least of which is the current labor shortage in many fields. It is very exciting to see how teams think about remote work and whether they predict that it is here to stay.”

Now in its 17th year, M3 Challenge is a program of Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and is sponsored by MathWorks. It spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool and motivates students to consider further education and careers in applied maths, computational and data sciences, and technical computing. Winning teams will be awarded a share of £75,000+ in scholarships, with the champion team receiving £15,000+in 2022.

In addition to Watford Grammar School for Boys, the other finalist teams hail from schools in Mequon, Wisconsin; Osprey, Florida; Lincolnshire, Illinois; Winnetka, Illinois; Lincroft, New Jersey; and Huntsville, Alabama.

“Tackling a multifaceted numerical problem within a limited timescale without handholding, the M3 Challenge is as close to real-world analytics as any student will come prior to full-time employment,” says the team’s coach, Ben Eastley. “Competing therefore provides an unparalleled opportunity for students to experience the ambiguities and time pressures that they will surely face later in life, as well as the difficulty of maintaining effective teamwork when early solution attempts inevitably require further development. I am delighted that my team have performed so well in this year’s challenge. They had to hone their mathematical and computational craft prior to Challenge Weekend and remain calm and effective in the midst of the challenge itself. I am incredibly proud of them, and very grateful to the organizers for providing such an excellent opportunity. I wish I could have had a go when I was in school!”

Team member Hamish Starling found M3 Challenge to be an all-encompassing math experience, and an important one, too. “Without a doubt, M3 Challenge is the best mathematics competition I have participated in. I see it as a kind of “capstone project” for school mathematics in the sense that we were able to apply what we learnt in school about regression and conditional probability to a real-life scenario; but the challenge is so flexible that you really can take it in any direction you wish. Overall, M3 Challenge has given us the knowledge, skills, and experience to pursue mathematical modelling further, and has truly opened my eyes to a field which I didn’t know much about. And that’s why it’s important to participate.”

For more information about M3 Challenge, visit m3challenge.siam.org

PDF of full list of finalist, semi-finalist, and honor mention teams. Here

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