Faculty and Academic News

Dr. Neil Nicholson authors problem for national math modeling challenge

Mar 08, 2017

North Central College Associate Professor of Mathematics Neil Nicholson was the featured author of a math modeling problem used for Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge, a program of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) for high school students, grades 11 and 12.

The M3 Challenge drew some 1,100 teams comprised of more than 5,100 high school students nationwide to work on a single math modeling question, which Nicholson created in conjunction with the National Park Service (NPS).

After serving for four years as a grader for the M3, Nicholson thought it would be fun to write some problems for the competition. “I look around at the world, society, the campus, the environment ... to find something current and interesting that would make a fun math modeling problem,” he said.   

“Even though I’m a trained pure mathematician, I believe applied mathematics, and in particular math modeling, will be the ‘go-to’ hot major on college campuses 10 years from now. There’s a push from all areas of life—whether it be politics, science, business—to justify decisions with some sort of quantification. This is exactly what math modeling does … and it’s an exercise in the liberal arts: understanding, research, validation, communication, application and use of mathematics.”

The problem Nicholson submitted for the M3 centers on a topic he’s passionate about: the national parks. “Any trip or vacation I do, I try to see as many national park sites as possible; I find them to be the most peaceful, amazing, beautiful places on earth. Somehow, it came to me that I could write a problem about them.”

The M3 problem he wrote required students to use mathematical modeling to make recommendations about the future of the national parks for the NPS, the federal bureau within the Department of the Interior. According to the NPS, in the coming years global change factors such as climate are likely to affect park resources and visitor experience and, as a result, its mission to preserve the natural and cultural resources and values of the service. Click here for a complete description of the problem.

“It would be absolutely wonderful to see ideas from M3 Challenge teams become part of the NPS discussion,” Nicholson (photo below) said. “To take ideas from eager, interested high school problem-solvers and make meaningful real-world changes to existing systems? That’s just cool.”