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Math Modeling Club Provides a Launch Pad for New Advanced Course

Story by Melody Guyton Butts

When you think of a high school math class, what memories come to mind? Maybe solving problems from a textbook with just one correct answer? Students working out solutions individually in a quiet classroom? Mathematical problems without clear connections to real-world dilemmas? 

While traditional math classes are critical components of a student’s math journey, they don’t have to characterize one’s entire mathematics experience, as Durham Academy Upper Schoolers competing as part of a new extracurricular math modeling club this year have learned.

Durham Academy Student demonstrate principles and equations from projects in math modeling club.


“Mathematical modeling is when you are using math to solve a big, complicated problem, where there may not be one easy right answer, that's based on some kind of phenomenon in the real world,” explained Forrest Hinton, who co-led the group this year with fellow Upper School math teacher Jarrod Jenzano.  

Math modeling empowers students to bring together all of the principles that they’ve learned in various other math courses — such as statistics, calculus, rates of change, and graphs of functions — and pair that knowledge with research skills honed in science and history classes, writing finesse from English assignments, coding abilities from computer science courses, an enthusiasm for debating methods with one another and, finally, the ability to present results in an engaging way. 

The club experience has been so well-received by students that Hinton and Jenzano will co-teach a new, semester-long math modeling course this fall. The course — one of the first Advanced (ADV) offerings next year that marks the beginning of Durham Academy’s shift toward a highly tailored, fully DA-designed curriculum for its most rigorous courses by 2024–2025 — will be largely project-based, with students being assessed primarily through written reports and presentations. 

“For me, being on the math modeling team was a chance to explore my interest in economics and applied math, neither of which (currently) have many classes available,” Claire Hong ’24 said. “I really enjoyed getting to know students in other grades better through the projects we did, as all of us had different strengths, whether it was working with computer software or graphic design. Next year, I'm excited about the class, where the more frequent meetings will help me learn a wider variety of approaches to modeling.”

The math modeling program — including this year’s club and the preparation for next year’s course — received support through the Strategic Vision’s Innovation Journey Fund, which encourages discovery, design and implementation of innovative ways of teaching, learning and operating as a school.

“We started [the club] with this problem where you're driving around and you're trying to figure out, ‘Gosh, I need some gas, how far should I go for gas in order for it to be worth making that drive to fill up? What's the best possible place to go?’ ” Hinton said. “Students have also looked at things like what is impacting a bee population over time — in the short run over an annual cycle and in the long run.”

The math modeling club, which held its regular meetings during lunch periods, competed in two major competitions this year: the HiMCM (High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling) in November and the M3 Challenge (MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge) in March. For the HiMCM, students were arranged into groups of four and chose between two sets of problems, one related to population change, and the other focused on factors contributing to carbon dioxide emissions. With two weeks to work on their problems, team members squeezed in time to do so around core academic work, extracurriculars and other obligations. 

The end result for each team was a 20-page report in which students showed their analysis and broadened data, and made recommendations for how to address the problem. Two DA teams’ papers received honorable mention recognition in the competition, which included entries from countries around the globe.

The M3 Challenge came with a more intense timeline: just 14 consecutive hours to explain the rise of e-bikes and to predict how the rise of e-bikes will transform transportation and cities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Students are up at the board doing all the math and writing and debating,” Hinton recalled, “but they're also making phone calls, literally, to European capitals, trying to get data about e-bike usage there. One of the judges in the competition said, you get bonus points for collecting this data live.”

One of DA’s two teams to participate in the M3 Challenge placed in the top 20% of the 650 or so papers submitted from students across the U.S. and U.K. Coupled with the honorable mentions in the HiMCM, the results are remarkable for a first-year extracurricular program. 

“That just happened based on the kids just sort of intuitively building and producing a good product. What if we had been able to teach them some techniques that would help them structure [their work] even better? And so I'm glad we're gonna be able to do that,” Jenzano said, referencing the fall 2023 ADV Mathematical Modeling course.

Several students who participated in the club this year chose to enroll in the course, including Anand Jayashankar ’24, who had previously participated in other math competitions like MathCounts.

“Math modeling was certainly unique from everything else I’ve done at DA, as it allowed me to take concepts I had learned in the classroom and apply them into real-world scenarios. Using math to solve issues in society and then write a research paper based on our model was the most exciting part,” he said. “The support provided by Mr. Hinton and Mr. Jenzano to the team was amazing.”

Michael Hansen ’24, who will also take ADV Mathematical Modeling in the fall, agreed that it has been enjoyable to apply advanced mathematical concepts to explore and analyze real-world issues. 

“Rather than focusing on abstract concepts — as math classes tend to — we were able to use those concepts in concrete, real-world situations,” he explained. “Even beyond our competitive success this year, being on the modeling team has made me understand that math does not exist in a vacuum but rather represents a valuable lens to analyze and describe the central issues that define the world around us.”