AMHERST, Mass. - Midnight Madness is going to strike this weekend for a University of Massachusetts team that has been training for months, preparing for a championship competition. But these three players aren’t on the University’s basketball team; rather, they’re participants in the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling.
Kicking off a weekend that promises little or no sleep, team coach Edward Connors, professor of mathematics and statistics, will open an envelope containing two complex mathematics problems at 12:01 a.m. on Fri., Feb. 6. Team members will choose one of the two to solve. They’ll then work round-the-clock to formulate an answer by 5 p.m. Mon., Feb. 9. They won’t be alone in their efforts: 409 teams from 224 colleges and universities from around the world are scheduled to compete, including teams from Hong Kong, South Africa, and Lithuania.
The problems are real-world situations with no single answer, Connors says. Problems in past years have included selecting a particular animal population in a specific locale then modeling its growth, and determining the best route for a team of snowplows to plow out a town. Working on a real-life, open-ended problem simulates the work mathematicians do in business and industry, Connors explains. The contest’s requirement that teams write a paper summarizing their solution underscores the need for communicating well in the workplace, he adds. The judges’ decision will be announced in April. The UMass team has done well in past years, earning five meritorious and five honorable mentions. "It’s a tremendous effort but very satisfying," says Connors, who launched the UMass team in 1987, just two years after the competition began.
This year’s team is distinctive in that all three students are double-majoring in mathematics and computer science: Brian Hanechak of Chicopee, Alexander Lowry of Acton, and Steve Williams of Amherst. Regardless of their work strategy, they won’t go hungry: box lunches are provided by campus auxiliary services, and other meals are paid for by corporate sponsors, including the Easthampton Savings Bank, Electronic Data Systems of Texas, the Five College Credit Union, Prentice Hall Publishing of New Jersey, and Specular International, a company co-founded by UMass team alum Dennis Chen and acquired by MetaTools Inc.
One of last year’s team members, John Sullivan, was an exchange student from the University of Cork, Ireland. This year, Sullivan will be playing for his home university, against UMass. Connors, while a competitive coach, is clearly a good sport: "John’s a fine student, and we wish him well."