MUHS students excel in knowledge battles

MIDDLEBURY — Two groups of Middlebury Union High School students keep piling up the academic accolades both inside and outside of the classroom.
Five MUHS students have already guaranteed themselves at least $5,000 in scholarship money through their stellar performance in a national math challenge, while six of their colleagues finished a very respectable fourth in the statewide Scholars Bowl quiz competition.
MUHS math teacher Perry Lessing had a hand in overseeing both groups of competitors.
The MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge, or M3, is an annual contest open to high school juniors and seniors throughout the country. Participants are given 14 hours in a single day to combine their math talents to help solve a real-world problem. This year’s challenge involved food-insecurity in the United States. Specifically, the teams were asked to develop strategies to quantify, reduce and repurpose the most food for the least cost.
MUHS seniors Ezra Marks, Laura Whitley, Julian Schmitt, Bastiaan Phair and Janet Barkdoll accepted the challenge. They were among more than 900 teams made up of 4,175 students who entered the competition, sponsored by MathWorks, a developer of mathematical computing software.
The top six teams, as selected by a panel of judges, receive scholarship awards ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, which are divided equally among team members and paid directly to the colleges or universities at which they enroll. The MUHS “Fab Five” team made the top six, and they’ll be traveling to New York City on April 30 to compete against the other finalists in determining the final ranking in the MathWorks Challenge.
No pressure, right? The students will stand before the contest judges and justify the findings in their challenge paper, lightheartedly titled “Lettuce Reduce Food Waste.”
“I am really impressed with these students’ work and with how beautifully they function as a group,” said Lessing, who coached the students in preparation for the challenge. “They did all the preparation for the challenge on their own and I did not see them at all on the day they spent on the paper… I know their friendships have deepened and that they have learned tons about making a group play to each of their individual strengths. I’m excited to be bringing them to New York and I’m super-curious to hear what they have to say. This is a great opportunity all around.”
In their paper, the students concluded the U.S. has enough food to feed the estimated 42 million citizens currently classified as “food insecure.”
The students tackled the task in three phases. First, they created a mathematical model to determine whether a given state in the U.S. could feed their food-insecure population using only the food waste generated within that state. Second, they designed a model to predict the amount of food waste a given household produces in one year, given the annual household income and the number of individuals in the household. Finally, they used mathematical modeling to consider several options for repurposing food waste within their own school community to maximizing its use at minimal cost.
The team concluded that its school community should donate 65.9 percent of the recoverable food waste to the local food bank, 11.6 percent should be fed to livestock, and 22.5 percent should be landfilled.
MUHS team member Ezra Marks said he appreciated the real-world applications of math to a major societal problem.
“It was exciting to see how classroom mathematics could be applied to suggest solutions to the problem of food waste in our community and the United States,” he said. “Our team worked well together, both collaboratively and individually, brainstorming as a group, splitting off into individuals and pairs, then reading and editing each other’s work. M3 Challenge will be happy to know we ate all the food we brought with us, leaving no waste on the day of the Challenge. Participating in the Challenge has given us a greater appreciation for the connection between computations and real-world applications of math.”
Laura Whitley said she are her teammates were “shocked” to have placed so well in the competition, and they all look forward to improving their ranking — and potential scholarship winnings — in New York City.
Bastiaan Phair said the group did a good job of parsing out assignments to individual members and then vetting the findings together.
“Everyone had at least some input to make sure they were OK and didn’t feel like it was something they weren’t comfortable putting their name on,” Phair said.
Competing against MUHS on April 30 will be fellow Challenge finalists from high schools in Lincolnshire, Ill.; Los Altos, Calif.; Osprey, Fla.; Lincroft, N.J.; and Waxhaw, N.C.
An MUHS team of six students — sophomores Ken Barkdoll and Nico Brayton, junior Silas Conlon, and seniors Lucy Groves, Greta Hardy-Mittell and Sophie Marks — won four consecutive matches during the 2017-2018 Scholars Bowl at the University of Vermont on March 24 before succumbing to repeat champions Essex High School. Middlebury — a perennial Scholars Bowl powerhouse — notched yet another top-four finish in the annual, intellectual tug-of-war between high school teams from throughout the state.
While the Tigers didn’t take the top trophy this year, they did take home the Medlar Cup, awarded each year to the Scholars Bowl team that wins the single-elimination qualifying section of the competition. The MUHS team beat competitors from Mount Abraham, Montpelier, Lyndon and Mount Mansfield high schools before falling, 470-340, to Essex in the semifinals.
“It was a strong program and we had great kids in it,” said math teacher Lessing, who has for many years mentored the school’s academic teams.
Lessing was particularly pleased with the balance of this year’s team: three boys and three girls — all of them super-smart.
“The team has tended to be a little boy-heavy,” Lessing noted — a trend he was glad to see broken.
Participants didn’t just meet up one day and decide to compete in the Scholars Bowl. They began testing themselves with sample questions back in November, and met twice each week after school during the winter sports season. Contestants must not only be knowledgeable about a lot of topics — including math, history, geography and pop culture — they have to be quick on the buzzer.
“It was hard work, but it was also a lot of fun for the kids,” Lessing said.
Hardy-Mittell, who is rounding out her senior year, has participated in the MUHS Scholars Bowl program since she was a freshman. She initially joined the team for fun, but has since established herself as a solid contributor and as a leader of the squad.
“It’s a good culmination for four years,” she said of her progression through the ranks.
Each team member has strengths; Hardy-Mittell’s happen to be in music and literature.
“We all have areas we are best at, and then we fill in the gaps,” she said.
Like Hardy-Mittell, Sophie Marks has been involved with Scholars Bowl since grade 9.
“There’s something really refreshing about a group of people who like knowing things and like sharing those things in a way that’s not condescending,” Marks said of her affinity for Scholars Bowl. “A competition is not necessarily about knowing (the material) better than the other team, it’s the fact that you know it at all. This is a group that celebrates knowledge without being arrogant.”
Ken Barkdoll’s forte is science, but he’s also more than capable when it comes to questions about modern politics, history and pop culture.
“It’s most fun when we all know the answer and work together as a team to answer it,” Barkdoll said.
Brayton has a particular interest in science, literature, music, geography and math.
“I’m obsessed with learning things,” he said. “Knowing random facts, even if you don’t think you need to know them. It’s exiting to me.”
By placing in the top four of the state championship, the young competitors punched their collective ticket to the National Academic Quiz Tournament finals in Atlanta, slated for May 25-27. The students will spend the coming weeks raising the $5,000 to $6,000 it will take to attend the competition. Anyone interested in contributing to their fund drive should contact Lessing at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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