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Clarkson associate professor stumps math students with environmental questions

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POTSDAM - When Kathleen Fowler first learned of a garbage collection the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, she wondered how mathematics could help clean up the mess.

Fowler, an associate professor of mathematics & computer science, at Clarkson University, turned to 5,800 high school students on more than 1,000 mathematics teams across 29 states for help. She co-wrote the mathematics problem featured in the 2013 Moody’s Mega Math Challenge national math competition.

Fowler had originally planned to challenge the students to use math to predict the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but after several months of research, she realized that task wasn’t feasible. But the issue inspired her to develop a mathematical problem for students to solve that could prevent future environmental dilemmas.

Her problem asked teams to devise a mathematical model illustrating how much plastic will wind up in landfills nationwide by 2023. The teams also developed models that would allow the cities of Fargo, N.D., Price, Utah, and Wichita, Kan., to decide on an optimal recycling program. They then submitted a report to the United States Environmental Protection Agency on how those cities’ models could be implemented on a national scale.

Fowler co-wrote the problem after several months of preparation work with Karen Bliss, a mathematics professor at Quinnipiac University. The teams had to complete all three parts of the problem in a period of 14 hours. A team from Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minn., took first place after a finalists’ round in New York City earlier this spring.

Fowler was humbled by the experience of co-creating a problem that high school students across the country attempted to solve. The competition shows that a mathematics education can be applied to solve real-world public policy problems, she said.

“We were so excited at the idea of thousands of students thinking about it. It was completely surprising when I read the papers of how they approached solving the problem,” Fowler said. “It’s promising that there’s a good group of students out there with this set of problem solving skills.”

Clarkson has been involved in the competition for several years. The mathematics departments at both Clarkson and SUNY Potsdam help determine the entries that will become finalists, and Kelly J. Black, a Clarkson associate professor of mathematics & computer science, also judges the finalists.

“Clarkson’s math department has a strong history of reaching out and working with a wide number of people,” Black said. “Our involvement in this event is just one of the many ways we try to fulfill our commitment to a wider community.”

“In our department, when we are teaching, we are constantly trying to make connections between mathematics and solving ‘real-world’ problems. This contest aims to achieve that at the high school level,” added Fowler. “I think most of us are excited to be part of that as a natural extension of what we do.”

The competition is funded by Moody’s and organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. For more information, visit http://m3challenge.siam.org.

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