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Students Hope to Cash In on a Closer Look at the Census

13 May 2010 1,190 views No Comment

Teens Use Math to Evaluate the Census Count and Its Impact on the House of Representatives and Redistricting



“The enthusiasm and energy that we have seen for this contest from thousands of high school teachers and students is terrific”

More than 2,400 high school juniors and seniors participated in Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge on March 6 and 7. Team members spent up to 14 hours using their math know-how to evaluate U.S. Census Bureau methods in order to make recommendations for undercount adjustment, the best method for apportioning the U.S. House of Representatives and the fairest way to draw congressional districts. The teams of teen math whizzes submitted papers based on their findings, hoping to win a portion of the $100,000 in scholarship prizes after a rigorous two-stage judging process and presentation to a panel of professional mathematicians.

Because of the political ramifications of the final census count and its effect on congressional apportionment, there is considerable interest in the adjustment for the undercount, which is believed to have been quite significant in many areas in the 2000 census. Therefore, as the 2010 census begins, this year’s problem, “Making Sense of the 2010 Census: To Count or Not to Count, That Is the Question,” was especially timely and relevant.

The problem called for student teams to aid Congress by first deciding whether the census figures should be adjusted for the undercount, and if so, to indicate how. If the solution they supported introduced errors, they were required to estimate how large their counts were compared to the undercounts. Teams were also asked to recommend to Congress a method for apportioning the House of Representatives and were required to justify their recommendation as to why this method was superior for dealing with this issue. Finally, the students were asked what recommendations should be made to the states to ensure that congressional districts were fairly drawn. In all aspects of the problem, teams were required to quantify their findings using mathematical modeling techniques, develop and defend their models, and justify their conclusions.

“The enthusiasm and energy that we have seen for this contest from thousands of high school teachers and students is terrific,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director, who is marketing director for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. “The application of mathematics to real problems with social and political implications and the realization that you can use mathematics to do really useful things is exactly in line with the mission of SIAM.”

All viable solution papers will undergo an extensive, blind judging process during the next eight weeks. Judging occurs in three stages: a triage phase in which all but the best submissions are eliminated; a second phase in which papers that are in contention for prizes are further calibrated, with judges arriving at and tentatively ranking the top 46 papers (six elite papers and 40 honorable mentions); and the third and final phase, which involves presentations by the top six teams at Moody’s corporate headquarters in New York, New York, on Wednesday, April 28, immediately followed by the awards ceremony.

Now in its fifth year, Moody’s Mega Math Challenge is an Internet-based math competition open to high school juniors and seniors living in the 18 states along the East Coast. Funded by The Moody’s Foundation and organized by SIAM, it challenges students, working in teams of three to five, to solve an open-ended, realistic, applied math-modeling problem focused on a real-world issue. This year, 531 teams participated in the competition, an increase of about 37% over last year. The M3 staff monitors many web sites to detect cheating and has received emails during challenge weekend directing organizers to potential rule-breakers. Some teams have been disqualified for using online homework help or question-and-answer sites.

To see the 2010 challenge problem, visit The M3 website here.

To see if your local high school participated in the M3 Challenge, download his PDF. And to view the winners and for information on the challenge, visit the challenge page of the website here.

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