Competitions prepare math students for real-world

Students standing holding an award plaque.

From left, Eric Eager, UW-L assistant professor of math; and UW-L students Thong Le, Mac Gallagher and Lance Hildebrand are pictured after the Wisconsin Mathematical Modeling Competition. The students also had an impressive score in the international COMAP competition.

Many math problems in school involve prepackaged problems that aren’t typical in the real world. Students are asked to solve the penultimate step and arrive at an answer instead of dissecting the problem from A-Z, says Eric Eager, UW-L assistant professor of mathematics.

That’s a problem for college students who will soon be solving problems in the workforce.

“Math is a deep subject where you crawl, walk, and then you get a job and are asked to run,” says Eager.

That’s why Eager is grateful UW-La Crosse students are able to get plenty of practice solving complex problems through mathematical modeling competitions. These competitions challenge teams of students to clarify, analyze and find solutions to open-ended world problems. They range from ranking colleges across America to redistricting a college football conference to provide the most fair and economical competition.

In February nine UW-L math students placed in the top 10 percent of nearly 8,000 teams worldwide in a mathematical modeling contest through the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications.

UW-L students again came out on top during the Wisconsin Mathematical Modeling Competition last October, competing against students from UW-Stevens Point and Viterbo University.

Now UW-L math students have landed opportunities to do research at prestigious places this summer such as University of California-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University and Mayo Clinic. Eager says the experiences doing real-world math outside the classroom have paid off.

“As an undergraduate student I didn’t have nearly the number of opportunities that our students have,” he says. “It’s a blessing that we have a department where the chair and dean support our students and faculty in such a large way.”

Funding from CenturyLink through the UW-L Foundation makes the Wisconsin Mathematical Modeling competition possible.