Math Modeling Owls 2nd in Nation

Five Owls worked about 170 hours – six hours a week from October to April – to analyze the problem of recidivism in Iowa prisons and formulate solutions based on predictive mathematical models. Their 38-page report resulted in a second-place finish nationally in the 2022-23 Modeling the Future Challenge, sponsored by the Actuarial Foundation. 
Lou Zhou led fellow seniors Amar Kanakamedala, Jeffrey Liu, and Henry Yu, and junior Evan Wu in the research project, “Breaking the Cycle: Reducing Recidivism in Iowa State Prisons.” They were among 13 teams (out of 114) to be named finalists. After defending their research during a video call April 26, they learned of their second-place finish. Each will receive a $3,000 college scholarship award. Competition results and the group’s final paper can be found HERE.

Zhou, a member of the 2021-22 math modeling team, recruited this year’s participants based on the characteristics most necessary for success – communication and perseverance – as they created mathematical models to analyze prison population data, project future trends, and offer recommendations to reduce recidivism.

“I’ve known most of these guys for over six years, so working together, even with a project of this size, was never going to be a problem. It’s been a blast working with these guys, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

In announcing the results, Actuarial Foundation Senior Program Specialist Nichole Semprit said, “A challenge like this requires many levels of analysis and critical thinking that one does not regularly see in the classroom but is an everyday aspect of many careers.” The goal of the competition, according to the foundation, is for students to learn “how mathematics applies to cutting-edge industries and technologies and to gain exposure to highly sought-after careers as actuaries and other math or STEM-related professionals.”

Instructor in Mathematics Steve Gadbois described the math modeling quintet as self-motivated and dedicated. He deflects any credit, saying he merely provided a space for them to work and some snacks, but the scholars offer another viewpoint in their acknowledgements.

“The authors of this work would like to thank our coach and mentor, Dr. Steve Gadbois, for his unwavering support throughout this process. His insights and guidance throughout this project have been invaluable.”

Coincidentally, Gadbois recalls as a child hearing, “but ignoring,” his dad talking about studying recidivism in Minnesota for his master’s thesis in the mid-1960s.

Zhou, who will head to Rice University this fall to major in statistics and sports analytics, offered advice to future Owl math modeling teams: “Work on topics you genuinely enjoy, not something that you think would impress a judge. When you’re on page 20 of your 38-page rough draft, it’s a lot easier to keep going on something that you are interested in. If you pick something you don’t like, you won’t produce good work.”

As for the rest of the seniors on the team, all are planning to study computer science in college, Kanakamedala at Rice University, Liu at UCLA, and Yu at Indiana University.

Wu will be at MUS for another year, perhaps keeping the legacy of math modeling excellence going strong.

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