Asbury Math Department Enters International Event

Though many people spend Valentine’s Day showing love to their significant others, a select group of Asbury University math majors will spend this Feb. 14 showing an entirely different kind of love. From Feb. 11 through Feb. 14, the math department will participate — for the 24th-straight year — in an international math-modeling competition sponsored by Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP).

The competition offers students, working in teams of three, the opportunity to use math to solve real-life problems. Last year it drew more than 2,000 teams, who participated on campuses across the world. They worked on problems concerning a serial killer’s path, the swing of a baseball bat and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The competition requires persistence, teamwork and a love for the subject.

“I kind of do love math. I’ll be honest,” says senior Adam Ward, who participated in the math-modeling competition last February and plans to participate again this February. “I love the problem-solving aspect.”

Ward’s team was one of five Asbury teams to participate in the competition last year. All five earned meritorious or honorable-mention standings. This year’s teams will be formed by the end of January, but students won’t see the problems they must solve until the night the competition begins.

Dr. David Coulliette, chairman of Asbury’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science
Dr. David Coulliette, chairman of Asbury’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science

“The COMAP problems are real life, dirty problems that don’t have a clean answer in the back of the book,” says Dr. David Coulliette, chairman of Asbury’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

The problems require teams to do background research, list assumptions, develop model solutions, test their models and write about their findings, all in the course of just a few days. To do this, each team gets to take over a classroom on the third floor of the Hamann-Ray Science Center on the Asbury campus.

“It kind of builds the whole mathematical research process in one weekend,” says Coulliette.

The experience the students gain, however, sticks with them long after the weekend is over.

“I consistently get more positive feedback from our alums about the modeling contest than anything else we do,” says Coulliette. “These are people who are working as actuaries or as financial analysts or as engineers… and they say,  ‘It taught me how to play well with others. It taught me how to write, how to work, how to manage time.’ I am amazed by how much feedback we get.”

The weekend isn’t all about doing research and calculations, however. It also provides students with a unique opportunity to bond with others in their major.

“It builds such good relationship connections in our department,” says Coulliette. “One of the trademarks of our department is that we try to encourage our students to work together and help each other… and this really helps that.”

When participants need to give their brains a rest, they can head to the Sigma Zeta lounge in Hamann-Ray to relax or fraternize. There they’ll find some encouragement from Asbury math professor Dr. Duk Lee and former Asbury math professor Dr. Ken Rietz, who initiated Asbury’s participation in the COMAP competition and who will return to facilitate the weekend alongside Coulliette this year.

“Dr. Rietz always makes a big run to the stores and brings back snacks,” says Coulliette, “so that’s the snack room and the common room that people can hang out in.”

“Sometimes we’re just up there playing music, hitting balls around… just de-stressing,” says Ward.

But the math whizzes aren’t the only students who hang out in Hamann-Ray during the competition. In recent years, other people have been dropping by during the competition to visit with the math students.

“You could just come in and sit and listen to them work. They may stop and explain where they are to you,” says Coulliette. “When the door’s closed, it means they’re working; when the door’s open, come in and hang out and see what’s going on.”

As Coulliette puts it, “What better way to spend Valentine’s Day than with your favorite geek?”

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