Not all students finding success at Simpson College are Simpson students.
The Simpson math department recently sponsored 16 high school students, the majority from urban Chicago charter schools, to take part in a math modeling workshop on the Indianola campus. And this is something Simpson students and faculty know a thing or two about.
For the last 10 years, Simpson has fielded more teams than any other American college or university in the international math modeling competition. They have consistently won prestigious awards for their efforts and now, they want to help students compete in the high school version of that same competition.
The math modeling competition at both the college and high school levels is sponsored by COMAP, the Consortium on Mathematics and its Applications. At the high school level, teams of up to four students spend three days researching an open-ended problem. Then the teams submit a written report describing how they would solve the problem. They are judged against schools from all over the world.
Mark Barth, college counselor at Rowe Clark Math and Science Academy in Chicago, can see how his students are impacted by the trip to Iowa.
“I don’t think most of us growing up got to see how math is used in the real world at such an early age. When we bring our kids here, they experience that and it gets them more excited for math. They begin thinking about career opportunities that most teenagers, especially coming from the neighborhoods our kids are coming from, have not been exposed to,” Barth said.
Matthew Leftwich, algebra II teacher at Rowe Clark agrees. “The (math modeling) problems they work on at the high school level are real world problems that people get paid to solve. One problem was how to set up a bike sharing program in a major city. Another problem was how to distribute ambulances throughout the city to respond to emergencies in the most efficient way possible. They’re getting a chance to tackle real world problems that people get paid to solve.”
Rick Spellerberg, professor of mathematics at Simpson, recruited seven of his current Simpson students to mentor the high school participants.
“In the real competition, the students don’t get any help from teachers to solve the problems. In this workshop, the Simpson students – all who have participated in the competition themselves – give guidance on how to approach problems which is really helpful for the kids who haven’t participated before,” said Spellerberg.
So the competition is fun and challenging. But what is the long-term benefit? Spellerberg doesn’t hesitate to answer. “This experience more than any other will help students realize the potential for careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas which is something we desperately need in this country.
“Many students don’t know what they can do with a math degree other than being a high school math teacher. So having these kinds of opportunities, where they can find out for themselves how they could apply a math degree in the real world, is quite valuable,” he continued.
The students don’t have to pay to attend, other than the cost of transportation to travel to and from Indianola,” said Spellerberg. “We applied for and received a grant from the National Security Agency to sponsor this program.”
“The NSA is very interested in developing student skills in the STEM areas so they were very supportive of our efforts to give students practice working together to solve real world problems,” Spellerberg added.
There are a few side benefits as well. Barth and Leftwich both said that interacting with their students outside the classroom was a positive experience for everyone.
“Getting to see students outside the classroom and having them see their teachers outside the classroom is really an amazing experience that we don’t often get at home. They open up a lot more and ask a lot more questions,” Barth said.
“And the stars! We love seeing all the stars,” commented Barth. “It’s almost like a different world and they love it.”