Bethel trio honored with prestigious math award

April 12, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Students’ paper one of 11 'outstanding winners' in international competition

News | Jon Westmark

Bethel trio honored with prestigious math award

Jake Smith, Michael Tetzlaff and Tony Burand (left to right) prepare to begin the 96-hour competition. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Nathan Gossett

On April 5, Bethel seniors Tony Burand, Jake Smith and Michael Tetzlaff were named outstanding winners for their collective work in the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling, a grueling four-day, worldwide competition put on by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP). Their paper was also chosen for the Mathematical Association of America Prize – the association’s pick for the competition’s best paper. 

By Feb. 4, the end of the four-day competition, the COMAP judges had received 5,636 entries, which they whittled down to 857 meritorious winners, 13 finalists and 11 outstanding winners. This year, only 7 percent of the teams were from the United States, while 5,261 of the entries came from 13 other countries, predominantly China. Colorado College and the University of Colorado- Boulder were the only other U.S. schools with outstanding papers on a list that included entries from science heavyweights like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley, California Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, Harvard and the University of Minnesota. 

The competition began for the students on Thursday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m., when two open-ended problems were posted online for the team to pick from. Over the next 96 hours, the team had to research, model and submit a solution for one of the two problems. This year, students were able to decide between either developing a cost-efficient water strategy to meet projected needs of a given country, or developing a maximally effective brownie pan in terms of oven space and baking effectiveness. 

Though the competition was primarily based on math skills, the team’s experience in other fields helped. Each member of the Bethel team is a double major – Smith in math and physics, Burand in chemistry and physics and Tetzlaff in computer science and physics. According to Smith, Burand’s knowledge of physical constants and convection, Tetzlaff’s aptness at computer modeling, and his own experience in statistics allowed them to “put all of the pieces together.” 

The physics department offered its electronics lab so the group could work uninterrupted over the four-day span. The students were allowed to leave the space whenever they pleased and could consult external published materials, but could not speak to others about the problem. The group took advantage of their freedom. “Even though the work was stressful, we made sure to take breaks like go out to eat or watch some of the Super Bowl,” Smith said. “After a little while, it was back to work.” 

The trio also made it a priority to get eight hours of sleep each night, and Smith estimated that they spent about 10-12 hours on the project each full day. Needless to say, they missed some class time. 

“The actual competition was stressful,” Smith said. “We set goals for ourselves to accomplish every day, and the actual problem-solving was tough. Deciding what to focus on and what to pursue further was one of the most challenging aspects.” 

One of the most important pieces is the one- to two-page summary on the cover of the submission, according to Nathan Gossett, professor of math and computer science and the team’s advisor. “You’ve got about a minute or so to impress the judges or else you’re out,” he said. “A lot of what we go through in practicing and training for this is how to make sure that in the first 60 seconds the judges know there is something special about your paper.” 

As the team’s advisor, Gossett is well aware of the judging process. In addition to having won two MCM outstanding awards as a student at Bethel in 2001 and 2002, he has also been a judge for the high school version of the competition. 

Apart from Gossett’s experience with the competition, Smith and Gossett both point to Bethel’s curriculum as a primary contributor to the team’s consistent success. “I believe that we really have a really good coverage of math theory, but we also have an emphasis on math application,” Gossett said. “There is a beauty to mathematics, but math is also incredibly useful and I think that is something that comes through in our math classes and helps people prepare for this.” Math modeling is one way that the practicality comes out in the curriculum, with each calculus course at Bethel utilizing it to some extent. 

Bethel has now won four outstanding awards in the MCM competition since 2001, a winning rate equal to that of MIT in the same time frame. According to Gossett, only six schools have won more often than Bethel as far back as the online records go. 

For Smith, the accomplishment goes beyond prestige. He cites the practicality of the experience for post-graduation as well as the fact that he was able to share the experience by working with friends. 

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