POTSDAM -- Clarkson University associate professor Kathleen Fowler co-wrote a mathematics problem featured in the 2013 Moody’s Mega Math Challenge national math competition.

The competition included 5,800 high school students on more than 1,000 mathematics teams across 29 states.

Fowler’s problem originated with a garbage collection the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.

She 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.

She then decided to develop a mathematical problem for students to solve that could prevent future environmental dilemmas.

Fowler co-wrote the problem after several months of preparation work with Karen Bliss, a mathematics professor at Quinnipiac University.

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.

The students then submitted a report to the United States Environmental Protection Agency on how those cities’ models could be implemented on a national scale.

The teams had to complete all three parts of the problem in a period of 14 hours.

The competition shows that a mathematics education can be applied to solve real-world public policy problems, Fowler 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. Kelly J. Black, a Clarkson professor, also judges the finalists.

“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,” said Fowler.

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