A group of undergraduate students from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has beaten more than 10,000 teams from around the world to become one of only 19 ‘Outstanding Winners’ in an international mathematics modelling contest.
Sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Application, the Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling invites students and academic advisors from more than 900 institutions worldwide to clarify, analyse and propose solutions to open-ended problems.
The XJTLU team was named one of only seven ‘Outstanding Winners’ in the operations research and network science (Problem D) category.
The team was made up of three Year Three students – Xiaotian Zhang (left) from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, and Guangyu Wang (middle) and Yihua Zhang (right) from the Department of Mathematical Sciences. Dr Jionglong Su, Dr Gang Liu, Dr Fei Ma and Dr Jie Fei from the Department of Mathematic Science provided guidance to the students before the contest.
Student Xiaotian Zhang said the contest involved completing all the work – from model building, solution solving, to result verifying and paper writing – within a tight, four-day time period.
“We chose Problem D, which was to design a model to successfully evacuate visitors in the Louvre Museum in Paris,” he said.
“To solve the problem, we not only needed knowledge of mathematical modeling – we also needed strong research skills and some understanding of the Museum’s architecture.”
Working together, the team evaluated the space of the Louvre for mathematical analysis and then applied their knowledge of graph theory and mathematical algorithms to minimise the evacuation time. The results were then optimised and perfected with the help of operations research algorithms and genetic algorithms.
Speaking about the team’s win, student Wang said the victory can be attributed to the team’s approach to understanding the big picture surrounding the problem presented.
“We decided to avoid rushing into the modelling part, instead focussing on comprehending the problem at hand and the circumstances and context around it,” he said.
“The contest is about using mathematics as a tool to solve practical problems, rather than to show off one’s own knowledge and skills.
“Sophisticated mathematical model is useless if we cannot use it to solve problems.”
Fellow student Yihua Zhang agreed, stating that instead of simply trying to come up with a solution, it was important to understand the problem, explore possible solutions, and then start the planning process.
The students divided up the work for the contest based on their own strengths. Xiaotian Zhang, from Information and Computing Science, was responsible for algorithms and programming; Wang, from Financial Mathematics, was responsible for comprehensive content and writing; and Yihua Zhang, from Applied Mathematics, was responsible for mathematical modeling.
Given the nature of the contest, which changes every year, it is hard to predict what skills will be required to solve the problems because it varies each year. Xiaotian Zhang said one of the most important skills students competing needed to possess was the ability to react and learn quickly.
“Our way of thinking is developed through classroom learning where we are often encouraged to think in creative ways to solve problems. This was a strong foundation for us, allowing us to quickly absorb new information in a short time period of time,” Yihua Zhang added.
Written by Luyun Shi and Bingyu Chen; translated by Ruotong Jiang; edited by Rosanna Galvin
Photo by Liping Tian