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Alum mentor helps students shift their applied math skills into top gear

This was a banner year for Mayfield in the annual MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, an advanced math problem solving competition that attracts more than 3,500 students from some of the biggest high school STEM programs across the country. For the first time, both Mayfield team entries were among the top 15% that advanced to the second round of judging, where they were praised for their “excellent writing style and mathematical foundation.”
The new variable in this year’s equation? Online mentoring from alumna Elizabeth Dimen ’16, an applied math and economics major at Brown University, who competed on Mayfield’s inaugural M3 team in 2016. Last fall, Mayfield’s two teams (who were way ahead of the curve on remote learning, as it turns out) sat down with Elizabeth over several extended Skype sessions on statistics, probability, and math notation. 

Team leader Fiona Pan ’20 said that Elizabeth’s guidance was a game changer for the students. “We learned how do we think of a problem—like top-down, bottom-up? Do we think of it more economically?” said Fiona, a second-time M3 competitor. “She really helped us find a concrete approach.” 

Elizabeth, who credits the M3 competition with helping guide her to her current course of study at Brown, was happy to help. “It's really rewarding for me to pass on what I have learned,” she said. “Going through all these college math courses really gave me a lot of tools...so I was very excited to pass it on to the next generation a little earlier than they might receive it.”

And, Fiona said, Elizabeth helped the girls identify their own blindspots. “It was really difficult to kind of point out each other's mistakes because we're not experts on math modeling ourselves, and it's really hard to come at a problem from an outsider's perspective,” she explained. 

The M3 competition is intense. Teams are tasked with tackling a real-world problem that’s revealed only on the day of the competition. This year, it was converting the nation’s 1.7 million big rigs from diesel to electric power. Students then collaborate over a marathon 14-hour session to produce a 20-page paper that outlines a solution that’s both logical and mathematically sound. The pressure-cooker environment is designed to mimic the complex and high-stakes situations that professional mathematicians often face.

Elizabeth was particularly impressed by the natural collaboration she saw among the Mayfield students: ”I don't think you could get that at another school where you just pull out five students and they already are able to communicate well…It was always a dialogue with space for everybody to chime in and contribute something,” she said. “I always felt like everybody was bringing something to the table in their own way.”

Math modeling goes beyond pure academic research. It helps people face the unknown with predictive reasoning. This advanced set of problem solving skills—which combines math knowledge, critical thinking, research, design, writing and, above all, teamwork—“has never been more relevant to the world around us than at this moment,” said math department chair Melissa Tighe.

Those ubiquitous animations projecting the potential spread of COVID-19, for example, are based on mathematical models. “Our current global crisis highlights the importance of having professionals skilled in being able to make timely recommendations based on sound data and analysis, complete with mathematical models that let us play out and prepare for a myriad of situations that accommodate many variables in a rapidly changing environment.”

This year, a donation from the Muir family (Jeanne Pratte ’82 and Lily ’13) to our STEM program enabled Mrs. Tighe to allocate resources for M3 competition preparation. Mayfield science teacher Michael Dimen met with students several times a week, helping with writing challenges and reviewing results of past competitions, and librarian Julie Daniels supported students with their database research skills. When Mr. Dimen suggested enlisting his sister, Elizabeth, to help mentor students, Mrs. Tighe—her former math teacher and inaugural M3 team recruiter—knew she would be a perfect fit.

As Fiona finishes her last semester at Mayfield and Elizabeth finishes her last semester at Brown, both are working remotely, and both are wondering what the next months of their education will look like. Elizabeth remarked how well Mayfield instilled lessons that left her “very well prepared emotionally” for the determination required in her future field. “I would say I had a lot of confidence…and I didn't have any trepidation of being a woman in STEM that I think some of my peers had who went to a co-ed school.”

While Fiona is hearing news from her college applications and looking to new horizons, she reflects that her participation in the M3 Challenge over the last two years has helped her “just not be afraid to be extremely wrong” about all sorts of things. “It's going to happen every time when we approach something new, which is definitely what we're gonna do in college,” she said. “We're going to meet a lot of new people, take on new classes, fail a lot, and then just go back to square one and be like, ‘Oh, okay, this path did not work. Let's try another path.’ ”

In a time of great uncertainty, it becomes possible to glimpse some of the ways Mayfield forges character, shaping women of fortitude, with a strength that extends into all sorts of situations. 
 
Mrs. Tighe sums it up neatly: “We at Mayfield are proud to be sending our students into the world armed with not only rigorous analytic skills but also with the moral and empathetic training that will shape the way that decisions are made and implemented.”
 
Congratulations to our 2019-20 M3 teams:
 
Senior Team: Solunna Nwankwo ’20, Fiona Pan ’20, Alex Thomson ’20, Halle Villalobos ’20 and Yalda Zadeh ’20.
 
Senior/Junior Team: Frances Burton ’21, Maggie Kiechler ’20, Sophia Labrador ’21, Ysabelle Magat ’21 and Megan Moffat ’20.
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.