Modeling Success For U.S.: Simpson Leads Way in Math Competition

Imagine that one state produces nearly half of the athletes that represent the United States in the Olympic games. Impressive, right?

Well, that should give you some appreciation of Simpson College’s impact in the 2014 Mathematical & Interdisciplinary Competition in Modeling (MCM/ICM), the Olympics of math modeling competitions.

The annual event gives students up to 96 hours to produce a report that addresses a problem. Collaboration, critical thinking and quantitative reasoning – all hallmarks of a Simpson education – are required.

“It’s for people who really enjoy solving problems,” said Mike Henry ’14. “You get a really big open-ended problem, and you have to make decisions that condense that problem down. I love that kind of stuff.”

A total of 6,755 teams participated in the MCM from throughout the world. In the ICM competition, 1,028 teams competed.

Once again, for the 10th year in a row, Simpson College fielded more teams than any other college or university in the U.S., and it wasn’t even close.

In the ICM competition, 22 teams represented the United States. Ten were from Simpson.

And the Simpson teams didn’t simply compete, they excelled. Simpson fielded the only teams from the state of Iowa that earned Meritorious awards (two) and Honorable Mention awards (four).

In the MCM competition, team members Maria Gonzalez, Demetre Van Arsdale and Kylie Van Houten were awarded a Meritorious award.

That means they finished in the top 11 percent of all the teams competing worldwide.

The ICM competition traditionally includes the toughest problem in the three-day event. Teams from the United States often steer clear of that problem.

But not the Simpson team, which included Austin Woods and brothers Mike and Scott Henry. They took on the toughest challenge, and finished with a Meritorious award, representing the top 15 percent of all competitors.

“My colleagues and I are very proud of the continued effort and enthusiasm our students have displayed year to year for this challenging competition,” said Rick Spellerberg, Simpson professor of mathematics. “The performance level of these particular six students is extraordinary, and once again puts themselves and Simpson College in the national spotlight.”

Mike Henry, a math and physics major, is a four-year veteran of the competition. He has learned over the years that it’s probably not wise to stay up for the duration of the event, even with the Simpson math department supplying free snacks and soda pop.

He has also learned that participation in the math modeling competition is something that sets Simpson’s math department apart.

In job interviews, when he is asked if he has any experience working with groups, he can answer, “I have plenty.”

“I imagine there are very few jobs that students are going to get where they’re going to be 100 percent isolated and not have to work with someone else,” he says. “The competition really pushes people to their extremes.”

It was the prospect of participating in math modeling competitions that persuaded Henry, who grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., to choose Simpson. Younger brother Scott has now joined him.

“Simpson’s good at this because Simpson challenges students,” Mike Henry says. “Mathematicians and physicists don’t just solve worksheets. Just like business majors don’t just talk about business theories. They do stuff. This modeling competition is doing things.

“We’re learning tools to solve bigger, real-world problems.”

Henry will take that expertise to his job after graduation. He and two other Simpson graduates have launched IntegriVault, a start-up designed to provide data security services.

He’s ready to graduate, but he’ll miss the math modeling competitions.

“This has been such a good experience,” he says.