Math Class Adds Reality to the Equation

Issue Date: 
July 6, 2015

Sometimes a University of Pittsburgh math course adds up to an elegant solution to a real-world problem.

Jeffrey WheelerIn Jeffrey Wheeler’s course BIG Problems (Mathematical Problems in Business, Industry, and Government), students are asked to interact with BIG leaders, find a BIG problem, and apply their mathematical, statistical, and computer knowledge to work it out. 

Take, for example, the problem faced by Global Links, a Pittsburgh-based medical relief and development organization that collects and ships surplus medical materials to places of need. The nonprofit found it was increasingly sending medical supplies to multiple small clinics, but its shipping containers were large—and expensive. The organization needed a method to estimate how to send a multiple-site shipment using the fewest containers. 

“Because Global Links is a nonprofit and the shipping containers aren’t cheap, they needed an accurate way to find out exactly how many they need to order,” said Wheeler, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

When the project results were presented to Global Links at the end of the Spring semester, they were very well received. 

“The algorithm that the Pitt math students, led by Eric Bentley, formulated for Global Links will allow us to work more efficiently, increase accuracy and output, and save staff time,” says Angela Garcia, deputy director of Global Links. “The students’ professionalism, coupled with foresight in design that will allow the tool to grow with our changing programs, were impressive. We are grateful for their help.”

The method devised by the students will also help Global Links provide an accurate shipping manifest to its clients prior to loading, Garcia says. Such manifests are often required by countries in order to get permission to import donated goods.

Bentley, leader of the Global Links student team at Pitt, said the class was a great opportunity to engage in the world outside the academy. “After years of academic math, it was gratifying to use it for a real-world problem.” Bentley earned his bachelor’s in mathematics at Pitt in 2014 and his master’s in mathematics this spring. 

Wheeler says his course is one of 30 nationwide to be accepted into the National Science Foundation-funded Mathematical Association of America’s pilot PIC Math Program (Preparation for Industrial Careers in the Mathematical Sciences).

When the new school year starts, it will be one of just 17 such courses to be asked to participate in PIC for a second time. 

Wheeler gives all the credit to his students.

“I didn’t tell them how to do it,” he says. “They came up with everything on their own. It’s a testimony to the kind of students we get at this school. They make me look good.”