Math students solve real-world problems for companies

Monday, May 15, 2017


Math students solve real-world problems for companies

For several groups of SUNY Maritime College students this semester, math was more than an academic class. It was a way to solve real problems faced by real companies.

One group developed a formula for a cable-laying ship to forecast nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions.

Another helped a digital forensics firm begin to understand how to handle congestion on a secure, private computer network.

Working with a financial organization, the third group analyzed the firm’s current method of analyzing names for connections to known terrorists or terrorist organizations.

“This was an opportunity for students to work with companies to see how math is used in real-world applications,” said Dr. Debbie Yuster, associate professor of mathematics. “I asked the companies not to give the students something that is mission-critical, but to give them something interesting that the company hasn’t had a chance to investigate on their own.”

The projects were the result of a $5,000 grant from the Mathematical Association of America’s Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Science program.

Dr. Yuster spent much of the fall working with various companies to identify problems her students could work on. Throughout the spring semester, the students and companies discussed the problem, potential solutions and questions. Every week and during mid-terms, each group gave a progress report to the class that was shared with the companies. Their final was another presentation, as well as detailed final reports and research posters. The three companies each received copies of the presentations and of the system or formula the students developed for the company’s use.

The first group worked with a cable-laying company, TE Subcom, to develop a way to forecast harmful emissions levels.

Nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide combine to form sulfuric acid, a component of acid rain. As environmental regulations tighten around the world, more ports are restricting access to high-polluting ships and requiring emissions monitoring that is expensive and difficult. In response, the students worked to develop an easy and efficient way to predict emissions of the two chemicals.

The team of four students developed a formula in Microsoft Excel – a program available on all of TE Subcom’s ships – for the company to make more accurate emissions predictions. The calculator requires either the number of days at sea or the amount of fuel consumed, and the type of fuel the ship is using to forecast emissions.

The second group helped with a cyber security project for a private firm.

Grier Forensics, a digital forensics and cyber security firm, has clients that require completely secure search functionality; the company is essentially working to build a private and secure form of Google. To allow quick and anonymous searches, however, the company needs to be able to manage congestion on the private network. The three students on that project were asked to test a known congestion-avoidance algorithm to better understand how to avoid and control congestion on a multiple-user network.

“These students all got immersed in the projects, exploring which programing language is best for the project, learning coding and really getting a chance to understand how math makes a difference in the real world,” Yuster said. “They got to see how the math they’ve learned applies in the real world.”

The third team worked to help a financial firm uncover ties to terrorism.

Before any person can open a bank account or conduct other financial affairs, financial companies will run that person’s name through a database to check for ties to terrorism. The biggest challenge is determining at what level a company can most effectively catch individuals with those ties without mistakenly flagging someone whose name is simply similar to one with known terrorist affiliations.

Working with an anonymous financial organization, four Maritime students created a computer code to run a list of made-up names against a government list of known terrorist affiliates. They determined what name-match threshold could catch the most known affiliates while minimizing false identifications.

Two members of the third group, Elias Alvarez, a senior facilities engineering major, and Francis Academia, a senior electrical engineering major, will give a presentation at the Mathematical Association of America’s MathFest conference this summer in Chicago.

“This was a chance to work on a real-life project. I feel a sense of pride behind it,” said Alvarez. “I know if we can contribute to this now, it has a real impact and may lead to a job eventually.”