Clarkson University math professor develops the problem to solve at Moody's Mega Math Challenge in Philadelphia
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 6:57 am

A Clarkson University professor developed the problem for attendees to solve at Moody's Mega Math Challenge (M3) in Philadelphia in March.

Associate professor of math and computer science Dr. Joseph Skufca challenged high school students to use math to create a school lunch menu that students will enjoy the taste of and is healthy at the same time.

"Last year, our small, local school system of about 1,400 students lost more than $60,000 during the first semester because students were purchasing fewer meals under the new (federal) school lunch program," Skufca said. "As a father, I also noticed that the taste of the new menu items was an issue for my children. As a mathematician, I saw that this was a situation where mathematics ought to be able to find a better solution. And who better to solve it than the true experts on this subject: kids?"

Childhood nutrition and obesity have been in the spotlight since First Lady Michelle Obama announced her health and wellness platform for children and spearheaded passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandates healthy choices in school lunches. Just last month, the first lady joined U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce guidelines for school wellness policies. As with any new program, school districts have concerns, such as budgetary limitations and declining revenue from food services due to lack of food appeal.

"Math models can certainly improve the economics of the school lunch program, but if the goal is to build life-long healthy eating habits, then we need to understand what makes the lunch experience enjoyable," Skufca said. "When we develop mathematical models of real world situations, we often face the challenge of needing to quantify and measure intangibles, such as ‘appeal' or ‘satisfaction'. Learning to overcome these creative challenges allows for significantly broader opportunities to apply mathematics to improve our world."The M3 event was attended by over 5,000 high school students. Six finalist teams, which will be announced April 7, will present their solutions to a panel of judges in New York City on April 28. Winning teams will be awarded shares of $125,000 by The Moody's Foundation.