Above: From left, Jadon Herron, Rachel Burton and Alex Macavoy
hard at work during the 96-hour math marathon that is the COMAP
Below: From left, Herron, Burton, Anthony Tovar, Rachelle Flynn,
Vaughn Skinner and Andrew Flynn.
Team rises above best science undergraduates from American Ivy Leagues to universities in China
News contact: Laura Hancock | University Advancement
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Source contact: Anthony Tovar | Associate Professor of Physics
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27 April 2011
LA GRANDE, Ore. (EOU) - In mid-February, students from Eastern Oregon University joined thousands of fellow scholars on a 96-hour marathon facing some of the toughest competition in the world.
It might as well have been an Ironman triathlon for the amount of effort put in by the two EOU teams, each consisting of three students.
While endurance did play a part, it was one team's stellar math calculations that would win the day in the annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Application (COMAP).
Rachel Burton and Alexander Macavoy, of La Grande, and Jadon Herron, of Union, took home the Outstanding Award - the highest honor of the competition. They are one of just four teams and the only from the U.S. to receive this recognition, rising above the best science undergraduates from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Duke, Johns Hopkins and over 500 university teams from China. The Mathematical Association of America also presented the EOU team with an award for their performance.
"This is an incredible achievement," said Bob Davies, EOU president. "Once again, EOU students and faculty can compete with any university...and win! To top some of the best schools in the world is remarkable. I'm thrilled for them all."
EOU has competed in COMAP since the late 1980s with numerous teams ranking in the upper echelon. Members of the second team also finished well this year. Vaughn Skinner, of Madras, Andrew Flynn and Rachelle Flynn, of La Grande, earned Honorable Mention, placing in the top 45 percent of participants.
"Less than 13 percent of teams were from the U.S. and in my mind this is a great victory for America, the state of Oregon, small colleges everywhere and EOU," said Anthony Tovar, associate professor of physics.
Tovar teaches a course on math modeling that helps students prepare for the contest. He also serves as the adviser to the COMAP teams.
"Our students took on more than 1,300 teams with the best math and science undergraduates from Ivy League and other research universities, small student-centered liberal arts colleges, and over 500 university teams from China," Tovar said. "These are some extremely serious people."
Students had their choice of two real-life problems to tackle: Problem A ("continuous" problem) or Problem B ("discrete" problem). EOU's winning team chose Problem A, which required them to determine the shape of a half-pipe snowboard course that would maximize the production of vertical air achieved by a skilled snowboarder.
Unlike some math competitions, teams don't turn in their answers for COMAP. Instead, the result is a carefully worded technical manuscript. One team member must know how to write proficiently and be responsible for compiling a document that the judges can skim in five minutes or less during the first round of judging. There are eight rounds that follow.
Holding practice sessions prior to the actual competition was critical in determining each student's role on the team. With Tovar as their coach, Burton, Herron and Macavoy devised a schedule and assigned "jobs" to every teammate.
"Each of us pitched in where we could and that kind of atmosphere gave structure to what could have been a chaotic mess," Burton said. "Ultimately it was our sense of humor that was our greatest strength as a team. No matter how exhausted and goofy I was after three days, I will never regret the experience and what I learned over the course of the competition."
Critical to the team's success was the encouragement and support received from faculty members.
"The math and physics departments, and Dr. Tovar's engineering dynamics class in particular, did a great job of preparing me for the competition," Herron said.
Tovar's teaching methods incorporate physics and math into real-life applications and it was his math modeling class Burton said helped her tackle the COMAP problem.
"I don't know if I have ever thanked a professor for homework, but I think that class really prepared me personally," she said. "The support from the entire EOU faculty and all of my friends gave me the energy and inspiration to actually try something as insane as a 96-hour math competition."
Macavoy, who is currently at the University of T?bingen in Germany with the Oregon Study Abroad Spring Intensive Program, echoed Burton and Herron's sentiments.
"I believe that our performance would not have been possible without Dr. Tovar's assistance in preparing for the competition," he said.
Classes taught by Stephen Tanner, associate professor of mathematics, Amy Yielding, assistant professor of mathematics, and numerous other faculty also gave the team confidence. Still, the students didn't think their chance of placing in the highest category was very plausible.
"We felt good about the project we turned in, but we also knew that we were in a worldwide competition," Herron said. "Finding out we had won 'Outstanding' was extremely exciting given the size of the event."
Tovar has a theory on their triumph.
"When you make a lot of small mistakes, you have the opportunity for something disastrous to happen. When you do a lot of little things right, you make the truly amazing possible," he said. "Both EOU teams did a lot of things right and prepared well for success. I am very proud of them."
The four Outstanding teams have been invited to give presentations at the Mathematical Association of America meeting in Lexington, Ky. on August 6.
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