96 Hours of “Dam-Good” Problem Solving

Every year, Harvey Mudd participates in the MCM/ICM, the Mathematical Contest in Modeling/Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling. The MCM/ICM is like a nationwide hack-a-thon but with real-world technical problems that require mathematical modeling. In teams of three, students select and work on a difficult real-world problem for 96 hours. The six problems to choose from are disseminated on a Thursday at 5 p.m. and a 20-page solution report is due the following Monday at 5 p.m. This year’s competition happened last week, from January 19-23. Harvey Mudd historically has been a top performer in the MCM/ICM among institutions nationwide.

Year Number of Teams Worldwide Number of HMC Teams Awards Earned by HMC Teams
2015 9773 7 1 Finalist
3 Meritorious
1 Honorable Mention
2016 12446 6 4 Honorable Mention

The most difficult and fun part of these real-world problems is that they typically require making detailed mathematical models and quantitatively analyzing complex real-world scenarios. “The art of making barely-justified assumptions came in very handy”, says contest participant (and my teammate) Tim Middlemas ‘17. For example, here’s an excerpt from one of the problem statements that was available this year.

The international agency Laboratory of Interstellar Financial & Exploration Policy (LIFE) is seeking a set of mathematical and computational models that will inform the International Coalition on Mars (ICM) government on how to design an economic-workforce-education system that they can implement with Population Zero. In order to decide what procedure to follow, LIFE has hired the most qualified policy makers and data scientists with the goal to develop a set of policies to realize the migration to Mars. Your three-person policy modeling team is part of the group of advisors and policy makers. ICM has asked your group for a policy model and report that will result in a set of policy recommendations that will create a sustainable life-plan and will make the living experience on Mars in the year 2100 even better than the Earthly one in the current year of 2095.

This year was my first year participating in the competition and I found it immensely rewarding. Years ago, I participated in a few Hackathons at the Claremont Colleges and in LA but as a physicist was often left in the dust by my peers who were computer scientists and engineers. I teamed up with fellow senior math major Dina Sinclair and senior physics major Tim Middlemas to tackle a problem about replacing the aging Kariba Dam between Zambia and Zimbabwe with a more reliable series of smaller dams. I found my training in differential equations and numerical analysis very applicable to this problem, using a combination of analytical and numerical methods to simulate the system and make sure it was a viable solution to the problem. The countless hours I had spent in Optics Lab (Physics 134) and Modern Lab (Physics 52) writing technical reports and making publication-quality graphs and figures paid off as we frantically wrote up our solution to the problem hours before the deadline.

The Kariba Dam [picture credits: Wikipedia]

One of the perks of the competition was that HMC’s Math Department provided a pretty generous snack budget for each team to buy food over the course of the competition. Many thanks to the HMC Math Department, Professor Weiqing Gu, and Jocelyn Olds-McSpadden for coordinating the competition and giving us this opportunity to be creative and flex our technical muscles!

Not pictured: The pouring rain that we braved to get there.

Here’s a picture of me, Dina, and Tim enjoying a delicious lunch at the Meat Cellar just off Foothill Boulevard on Sunday afternoon.