Solving the world’s problems: Nashua mathletes advance to finals in major national competition

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From left, Nathan Yeung, Denver Blake, Ian Coolidge, Frederick Lee, Daniel Bujno, representing the Academy for Science and Design. Photo Courtesy of SIAM

NASHUA, NH – A combination of math smarts and creative thinking has added up to a top spot in a major national math competition for five Academy for Science and Design students.

The students – Denver Blake, Daniel Bujno, Ian Coolidge, Frederick Lee and Nathan Yeung of Academy for Science and Design – have advanced to the finals in the popular MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, the only competition of its kind which this year drew more than 4,000 11th and 12th grade participants from across the nation. The Nashua team will head to New York City on April 29 to compete against five other finalist teams at the offices of Jane Street, a quantitative trading firm.

Using mathematical modeling, the students had 14 hours in late February to come up with a solution to a real-world issue – substance abuse in the United States. The problem asked teams to create a mathematical model to predict the spread of nicotine use due to vaping over the next 10 years and compare vaping to cigarette use, and then to build a second model to simulate the likelihood that a given individual will use a given substance, considering social influence and characteristic traits as well as characteristics of the drug itself. Then they were asked to predict how many high school seniors will use these substances. Students were finally tasked with developing a metric to measure and rank the impact of the use of various substances.

More than 875 participating teams from across the U.S. submitted papers detailing their recommended solutions.

“Participants could use simulation and programming, probability and statistics, or even algebra to model the number of students who choose to use different substances,” said problem co-writer Katie Kavanagh, Clarkson University. “These students offer a unique perspective on what factors are important to consider, particularly at that critical, influential time in their own lives.”

Organized by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and sponsored by MathWorks, M3 Challenge – now in its 14th year – spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool and motivates students to consider further education and careers in math and science. Approximately 35 scholarship prizes totaling $100,000 are up for grabs, with the champion team receiving $20,000.

In addition to Academy for Science and Design, the five other finalist teams hail from high schools in Lincolnshire, Illinois; Glendale, Wisconsin; Rockville, Maryland; Lincroft, New Jersey; and Plymouth, Minnesota.

“Watching our team both prepare for and participate in the M3 Challenge this year was tremendously rewarding for me,” said Karen Legault, Mathematics Teacher at Academy for Science and Design, who coached the school’s students in preparation for the 14-hour challenge.

“These students worked well together, they divided the work, discussed their findings, challenged each other’s ideas, and combined their knowledge of research, mathematics (including statistics & modeling), programming, and communication to create their proposed solution,” she said. “By participating, these students were given an opportunity to challenge themselves individually along with their ability to work together intensely. The nature of the Challenge Problem required them to apply many skills they’ve been developing during their high school years along with some of their newly acquired knowledge in mathematical modeling to prepare a solution to a real-world problem.”

Team member Ian Coolidge found M3 Challenge to be unique among other math competitions, and fun too. “As a team, we are honored to have received this recognition as a finalist in MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge. Instead of simply answering questions on a test, we had to think creatively about how to build a model to solve a real-world problem. One thing that stood out to us about the Challenge was the opportunity to utilize skills other than just mathematics in our solution. In addition to creating our mathematical models, our team utilized research skills to find accurate and relevant data, and computer science and programming to develop a dynamic simulation to one question. The interdisciplinary nature of the Challenge is another reason why it can help develop skills that are useful in real careers, even outside of mathematics.”

For more information about M3 Challenge, visit

Below is this year’s challenge problem: