Students crank out stellar math paper in international modeling contest, beating 11,243 other teams

A team of three second-year students from the University of Virginia School of Engineering was named an Outstanding Winner in the 21st annual Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling. Theirs was one of 19 winning teams out of 11,262 that competed in the international computer modeling contest, which is organized by the U.S.-based Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications.

The UVA team of Shenghui “Vivian” Chen and Yike Guo, both computer science majors, and electrical engineering major Xiangwen Guo, also won a prestigious INFORMS Award, sponsored by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. The institute supports the modeling competition, which received start-up funding from the National Science Foundation.

Although the results were recently announced, the competition took place from Thursday, Jan. 24, to Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, when teams of three undergraduate students representing universities from 15 countries or regions researched, modeled and wrote a solution to one of three open-ended interdisciplinary modeling problems. Each required data analysis, creative modeling and scientific methodology, along with effective writing and visualization to communicate their results in a written report, according to the news release.

Chen, who led the team, said she and the other UVA students studied the contest carefully and read papers by past outstanding winners before getting started. When the problems were announced, they picked the one that asked teams to create an ecological services valuation model to understand the costs of land-use projects. The model was intended to help to perform a cost-benefit analysis of land-use development projects of varying sizes, from small community-based projects to large national projects.

“We chose it because all of us experienced firsthand the degradation of natural environments due to unrestrained development,” said Chen, who is from Nanjing, China.

Vivian Chen thumbnail

"As engineering is about solving societal problems with science and technology, I think understanding the problems themselves is as important as learning the tools like algorithms."

Shenghui “Vivian” Chen, computer science major

Yike Guo is from Suzhou, a major Chinese city, and Xiangwen is from Beijing. The problem was more than an academic exercise to them; they sought a real, objective analysis. Although air quality is improving every year in Chinese cities, Chen said, the memory of her middle school closing when pollution was too concentrated to go outside is deeply imprinted.

“As engineering is about solving societal problems with science and technology, I think understanding the problems themselves is as important as learning the tools like algorithms,” said Chen, who at UVA is involved in smart cities research related to predicting air pollution. She works in the lab of Lu Feng, an assistant professor of computer science with a joint appointment in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. Feng is also affiliated with UVA Engineering’s Link Lab, a multidisciplinary center for research in cyber-physical systems.

Xiangwen Guo and Chen took responsibility for building the mathematical model and explaining how it could be applied in different scenarios. Then, each student developed and analyzed one case study — the most time-consuming step.

“By Monday morning, we already had a draft of the paper,” Chen said. “We finished it by fleshing out the introduction, discussion and conclusion by reviewing the results for the case studies and reflecting the limitations of the model. Finally, we reviewed and proofread each other’s case studies.”

By Monday afternoon, it was done and delivered.

Julie Spencer, an assistant professor of applied mathematics in the Department of Engineering and Society, served as the team’s advisor at Chen’s request.

“Vivian was an exceptional student in my ordinary differential equations class, and I was happy to be able to sign on as her advisor,” Spencer said, although she noted the students didn’t need much help. “I think it really speaks to these students’ abilities that they were able to place in this contest.”

Chen believes their early preparation, good communication and genuine interest in solving the problem were keys to their success — but they nonetheless drew on their coursework.

“The technical classes we took at UVA helped us build a deep understanding of mathematical concepts. For example, the logistic growth function we used to model the influence of land-use projects is actually a first-order equation, which we solved using integration to get an analytical solution. That is the basic technique in our calculus classes. Besides, many writing assignments we had in our various classes strengthened our technical writing abilities, which also helped us in this process.”

Having an applied math program in the Department of Engineering and Society, which also houses science, technology and society, distinguishes UVA Engineering from its peers, said the department’s chair, W. Bernard Carlson.

“The applied math curriculum forms the foundation for students to succeed in the engineering program. The courses are engineering-focused, emphasizing the higher-level math that is more applicable to the work they’ll do in the third and fourth years and as practicing engineers,” he said.

Science, technology and society focuses on other skills Chen mentioned, Carlson said — from writing technical papers to teamwork to the ability to contextualize and see the big picture.

“Vivian, Xiangwen and Yike are exceptional students, and it is exciting to see how they were able to capitalize on their cumulative learning and life experiences with such a spectacular success. All of us at UVA Engineering are extremely proud of their accomplishment and glad to be able to contribute to their continued development as engineering leaders and innovators.”

The contest experience was valuable, Chen said. “It made us realize how much we can accomplish in a limited time. If not for the contest, I do not think I could finish a 16-page mathematical paper in just four days. This contest really pushed our boundaries and made us recognize our potential.”

One person who isn’t surprised by that potential based on her knowledge of Chen is Feng. Chen has been doing research in Feng’s lab since September 2018, and took her graduate course, “Formal Methods for CPS and Robots,” during the spring 2019 semester. Chen’s performance in the course was outstanding, even compared with Ph.D. and master’s students in the class, Feng said.

“I’m very proud of their achievement in the contest,” Feng said of Chen and her teammates. “Vivian will continue to do research with me over the summer on topics related to smart cities and cyber-physical systems. She is aiming to publish research papers at top computer science conferences, which can help her application to graduate schools later.”

Kevin Skadron, Feng’s chair in the Computer Science Department, echoed her pride. “This is a huge accomplishment,” he said. “These students are not only talented, they worked incredibly hard over those five days. I think it’s a testament to our department and to UVA Engineering that we’re able to attract students of their caliber, and I am glad they could represent us on this international stage.”