Fighting Australian wildfires – from your dorm room

3D modeling of fire locations

This is what the team of Zizheng Yang (Math/Phys), Tian Fan (Stat), and Kangcheng Xu (EE) accomplished, by taking part in the international 2021 Mathematical Contest in Modeling. After weeks of preparation, the problems were revealed on Thursday, Feb 4. Then the team had until Monday to tackle one of three realistic and challenging scenarios.

The firefighting challenge which they selected was based on real data from Australia. They had to develop a mathematical model for the deployment of drones surveying the fire, implement the model in software, optimize the impact and use of resources, and draw up a ‘business plan’ that would describe the timeline and funds needed to bring the model into the real world.

If this sounds a bit more challenging than your usual homework, that’s because it is. And for everyone on the team, this was the first time they took part in such a large, prestigious competition – but they came well prepared with relevant coursework and programming skills.

Undeterred by over 10,000 teams participating, Zizheng wrote that he sees the MCM as “an opportunity to use my coding ability and mathematical modeling skills to solve complex problems.” With his teammates bringing a diverse skill set to the table, their work paid off – they earned an Honorable Mention. “For first-timers, this is huge,” said their faculty mentor C Roettger (Math). “It means that they were better than about 7,000 other teams – and they are juniors, so they will have a chance to try this again.”

For any students thinking about participating in such a competition, Roettger recommended “Go for it! It will be exciting, a resume-builder, and could even be fun. But plan ahead – look up deadlines, ask faculty for advice early. For example, if it’s your first time, I would usually tell you to enter a small, friendly event like the Iowa Collegiate Math Competition – the MCM was a first time for me as well, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”

The team is grateful to the Mathematics department, in particular Dr S Butler and the Barbara Janson Fund, for covering the competition fee.