Challenging students in a collaborative maths competition

An international mathematical modelling competition has seen senior secondary students in Australia work collaboratively on a complex, real-world mathematics problem.

The International Mathematical Modeling Challenge (IM2C) is an annual competition which aims to support the real-world application of mathematical learning. The competition is coordinated in Australia by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and this year, 102 teams submitted reports for judgement across the country, with 14 teams being recognised as national finalists.

Participating teams have just five days to devise an original mathematical model to provide a solution the problem presented and prepare a report for submission to the judging panel. This year, students were asked to develop a model that would show stores how to arrange their products during a flash sale in the most optimal way to minimise damage to their merchandise.

‘Experiencing mathematics as a mental discipline, with its set of tools and techniques that can be used to explore something that may not be well defined, is a novel experience for many students. They may start out thinking there must be a single correct answer but quickly realise that the real world is often much more messy than that,' ACER Principal Research Fellow and IM2C Australia Director, Ross Turner, says.

Two teams in Australia were awarded the highest form of recognition, meritorious achievement, and continued to the international judging round. These were a team from Caulfield Grammar School in Victoria, comprised of students Ethan Connolly, Shelly Liu, Yinhan Huang and Eric Yu, with teacher advisor Dr Kulan Ranasinghe; and a team from North Sydney Boys High School with students Edwin Lam, Trent Zeng, Duc Thinh Ong and Andy Zeng, and teacher advisor Andrew Hwang.

Extending students with real-world application of learning

For Andrew Hwang, team advisor for the team at North Sydney Boys High School, this year was the first time students had participated in IM2C.

‘I became aware of the competition last year and mentioned it to the Year 11 students,' Hwang tells Teacher. ‘Four students formed a team and came to participate this year. … These students study the most advanced mathematics course available in NSW, Mathematics Extension 2.'

Team advisor at Caulfield Grammar School, Dr Kulan Ranasinghe, has advised teams for the IM2C three times now.

‘This challenge certainly tests the ability of logical thinking and synthesis in a real-world, problem-solving setting,' Ranasinghe tells Teacher. ‘This is a key to success – with the challenge measuring how well the candidate team performs under time pressure over the five day challenge, amalgamating complementary skills that each student has.'

The challenge extends students in other key learning areas, Ranasinghe adds. Skills like research, abstract thinking, programming and coding, and communication were developed as part of the challenge, and it's these skills, he says, which students will need in their careers.

‘It's a great opportunity for anyone who is willing to take challenges and risk at some level – in terms of applying logical thinking in very demanding settings. An opportunity to excel in their final years of secondary school study,' he says.

Working flexibly during remote learning

The timeframe to complete the IM2C in Australia fell in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic saw government-mandated remote learning become widespread across the country.

‘The school just started online learning, so it was a bit difficult to establish a good line of communication,' Hwang explains. ‘As relieving head teacher, it was particularly hard for me to oversee the project and perform my duty as the head teacher. However, the students were able to perform exceptionally well with the collaboration and produced outstanding work.'

A member of Hwang's team said their biggest challenge was not being able to work together in person over the five days provided to complete the task. ‘We had to schedule a call every day and it was hard to touch base with everyone because they're not in the room with you, and sometimes you can't reach them as quickly or easily because everything is online through texts or calls,' they said. ‘But because of that, it was a rewarding and enjoyable experience that tested our collaboration and organisational skills, as well as our mathematical and intellectual abilities.'

Guiding students through the challenge

The role of the team advisor is to ensure their team follows the instructions and rules outlined for the competition.

‘For this challenge, encouragement and detailed discussions are quite helpful for them [the students] to understand the setting of the competition and the preparation phase towards the final stage,' Ranasinghe says. ‘Because these students are already undertaking demanding subjects, as an advisor it is important to understand their demands and help them to achieve the goals without distracting their current study routines too much.'

Hwang says the most important thing he learned from being an advisor is how useful it is to develop problem-solving skills with students in their earlier years of secondary schooling.

‘We were able to develop a teaching program that focused on problem-solving skills which developed strong reasoning and logical power that the students needed to excel in this challenge,' he shares.

‘The most helpful thing about this challenge was that it was very different from the standard mathematics they learned from school. I think this challenge was an excellent way to show their developed problem-solving skills that are not usually very apparent in the normal curriculum,' Hwang says.

In the international judging round, completed in July, the teams from Caulfield Grammar School and North Sydney Boys High School both received an honourable mention. For details on how to register for the International Mathematical Modeling Challenge next year, visit

IM2C Australia Director, Ross Turner says ‘experiencing mathematics as a mental discipline, with its set of tools and techniques that can be used to explore something that may not be well defined, is a novel experience for many students.’

As a mathematics teacher, how do you ensure your students are given the time to apply theories learned in class to complex, real-world issues?