Entrance hall of the ICMSModelling Camp 2016

Modelling Camp 2016 group photo outside ICMS

Students and instructors at the 2016 ICMS Modelling Camp

In March 2016, 30 PhD students came to ICMS for a four day Modelling Camp to apply their mathematical skills to realistic problems. Modelling Camps are excellent preparation for attending Study Groups where mathematicians collaborate with industry, analysing and solving real problems.

Following a structure akin to the Study Groups, students formed into small groups after a morning listening to four problem descriptions from four problem setters.  For the ICMS Camp we had a variety of topics for the students to get to grips with:

  • Forecasting periods of maximum electricity consumption - societal/economic impact Students at blackboard
  • Brewing filter coffee - economic/societal impact 
  • Bottle testing - economic impact: reduction of costs
  • Optimal resource allocation across advertising budgets 

Once the students were matched with appropriate problems, the remaining days predominantly involved group working under the guidance of the problem instructors. Each group presented regular updates on progress to the others.  There was lots of lively discussion and blackboards were in great demand! Hard-earned prizes were awarded on the final day.  These included a prize for the best team, and the opportunity for students to participate in the 2016 Durham Study Group.

The Modelling Camp was enjoyed by instructors and students alike.

  • “a very enjoyable experience for me, and very well run. I would certainly be very happy to participate in future modelling camps and recommend them to my colleagues and students.” (instructor)
  • “I learned a lot from this Camp and I had a lot of fun as well.” (Student)

Read more about the ICMS Modelling Camp in our interviews with three of the participants.


Andrew Croudace, University of Strathclyde

Andrew CroudaceAndrew grew up in Beddau, South Wales. During his GCSEs he was keen to follow a career in Architecture. After his A levels (Double Maths and Physics) he ended up doing a Maths degree at the University of Glamorgan (now the University of South Wales). Through one of the lecturers at Glamorgan, Andrew made connections with the University of Strathclyde and started a PhD there in 2014.  He found the transition to PhD relatively straightforward and credits this to having given lots of focus to his dissertation in the final year of his undergraduate degree. Andrew’s PhD is on Thixotropic fluids in a slowly varying pipe.

Can you tell me what you were expecting when you signed up for this event and what have you got out of it so far?
When signing up for the Modelling Camp, I was expecting fewer participants and for most of the participants to have lots of previous relevant experience.  I was concerned that the problems would have limited/no relevance to my work.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that the others have a similar level of experience to me, and how much I’ve been able to contribute to the group. 

Why did you pick the Coffee Problem?
I’ve been working on the Brewing Filter Coffee - economic/societal impact problem this week.  My supervisor advised me to work on a problem that was related (however loosely) to my work and failing that to tackle something I’d normally hate.  My PhD is on fluids, and I hate coffee! So, in the end, it seemed the logical choice. 

What have you found most enjoyable about the week so far?  
It has been a change from the norm.  A break from the PhD but still working in maths. Also, spending a relatively long period of time with other PhD students working a similar problem

How does participating in this modelling camp differ from your normal day as a PhD student?
With the PhD it is me and my supervisors who know about the problem, and discuss it.  You talk to other people about it, but not in any depth. With this, lots of people are tasked on the same problem, so everyone is happy to be talking about it, leading to lots more interaction.

Have you met interesting people?

What new connections have you made?  
People in the same area, so likely we’ll meet up at future conferences etc.

What might this lead to?
Who knows?

Would you attend another modelling Camp?

Would you recommend others to attend? Certainly

Any advice for first-time attendees? 
Consider going away from home, not knowing many other people forces you to interact more and is ultimately more beneficial.

Have you been to many other events? Can you give me some examples?
Mainly conferences, so the modelling camp has been different, lots more hands on

If you could solve one maths problem what would it be?
My PhD!

How can we increase diversity in mathematics?
Not sure, but events like modeling camps will help

Do you prefer blackboard or powerpoint?
Definitely blackboard


Paul Johnson, University of Manchester

Paul JohnsonPaul Johnson is a lecturer in financial mathematics at University of Manchester where he’s lived for the past 15 years. He came to the ICMS Modelling Camp as a co-organizer and problem setter.  Paul brought with him a unique challenge on Optimal Resource Allocation across Advertising Budgets for his student team.  Unlike the other problems, this one used real-time industrial data from Skyscanner.

Tell me a bit about your role as a Modelling Camp problem setter
I was brought in because I had previously spoken to Skyscanner about the problem. They were part-funding the event and I was someone who knew a bit about the problem they wanted to present. So this has been more of a joint effort instead of presenting the problem on behalf of a company.

Is Modelling Camp living up to your expectations?
Well, I expected to get good students and they certainly are. Very sociable, everyone’s been really nice and it’s a really nice atmosphere.

What have you found most enjoyable about the week so far?
Anyone who’s in this field of academia really has to get a buzz out of seeing people getting enthused, seeing the students getting interested in things and working. You get happy when people get interested in your problem. It’s nice to teach them something a bit different, too.  I don’t think many of my guys had got their hands dirty with data before.

How does participating in the modelling camp differ from your normal day as a mathematician?
I’d normally be having these sorts of discussions on a one-to-one basis with individual undergrad/MSc/PhD students. Here I’ve got eight people working on the one problem.  Keeping track of that is quite difficult.  They split into sub-groups working on parts of the problem then we’ll bring it all together at the end.

Have you met interesting people - made new connections? Do you think it will lead to anything beyond the Modelling Camp?
Academically, meeting the other organizers has been good. My work is all based in finance so talking to them about real world problems. Those guy have got some great stories about the more physical elements of mathematics that I don’t really study myself.

Have you been to many other events like this?
I’ve not been to a modelling camp, even as a student. I do go to financial conferences and events but this is a fairly new thing.

How can we increase diversity in mathematics?
Obviously, it’s a big debate. In Manchester at undergraduate and postgraduate we have quite a lot of diversity. It seems to somehow have a massive drop off after postgrad. Maybe it’s psychological – when they look at the teachers they don’t see themselves. I know people are resistant to the idea of quotas or something like that but how do you change things unless you get people in there? Perhaps mandatory shortlisting for interviews would help – I’m not sure if we do that at the minute – it’s a small nudge towards giving minorities a higher chance.

If you could solve one great maths problem what would it be?
The big thing I’m most interested in is the more real world economics. In Manchester, the economics department is in the social sciences building. There’s no interaction between maths and economics.  I’d quite like to get into that field and see if there’s more applied maths and dynamic modelling they could be using to solve problems. There’ve been advances recently in the ability to fit your mathematical models to more and more complex situations which makes it more likely we could solve those sorts of problems in the future.

Who is your favourite mathematician and why?
I’m going to go a little bit off and pick somebody that’s not quite a mathematician: Fisher Black and Myron Scholes. They effectively came up with the mathematical framework that eliminates risk in the financial contracts. Unintentionally, they’ve had a massive effect on the whole world over the last 40 years in terms of the way we deal with money. There’s obviously been a lot of benefits and obviously some negatives as well. What they did as a piece of mathematics was really, really good. There was a misunderstanding of how it can be applied to the real world and in what situations the assumptions break down. That’s one of the important things about mathematics; that, as mathematicians, we hope we understand the limits of our models.  In the finance world, there’s probably been a lot of people who don’t really understand the model and they put them into situations where they just don’t work.

Do you prefer blackboard or Powerpoint?
If I’m doing small-group teaching, I much prefer blackboard. It’s great downstairs here because we can use blackboards. But I’ve a bit of a bias against blackboards when I’m doing lectures – as well as the visibility, I struggle writing for long periods. I get back pain and things like that.  I would prefer visualizers but the need to be much better. The big advantage with a big lecture theatre is that you have maybe six or eight blackboards you can show everything on but you usually only have one screen, sometimes two.  The ideal would be eight screens with the visualizer to get that staggering of the material. You don’t want to flick between pages in Powerpoint – it makes you feel ill.  It’s really a case of blackboards aren’t great but the technology isn’t there yet to replace them.


Nora Tanner, Heriot-Watt University

Nora TannerNora is a second-year MIGSAA student based at Heriot-Watt University. Prior to starting her PhD Nora did an MSc in Ecological and biological modeling at Heriot-Watt.   

Can you tell me what you were expecting when you signed up for this event and what have you got out of it so far?
As a MIGSAA student I was automatically enrolled in this modelling camp and so I didn’t have any particular expectations of what it might be like.  I have enjoyed working with other people and there’s been much more interaction than I normally have in day-to-day life doing my PhD. It has been enjoyable working on a common problem with the other students.

What problem are you working on and why?
I decided to pick a problem in an area I knew nothing about so I chose the Brewing Filter Coffee - economic/societal impact problem. The other problems were all in areas I had explored during my SMSTC courses. I wanted to try something completely different.  It was hard to try and understand the problem at first but I found that through continuous questioning and by re-examining the problem we were able to come up with a number of solutions.

What have you found most enjoyable about the week so far?
Working with people I don’t know has been a novelty. We did also manage “field trips” to local coffee shops that I hadn’t been to before.  When I was here for my first year as a MIGSAA student I always enjoyed the lattes from BrewLab.

How does participating in this modelling camp differ from your normal day as a PhD/mathematician?
With my PhD I really only see my supervisor and apart from assisting at tutorials I don’t interact a great deal with other mathematicians. I do go to seminars but it isn’t the same as working on a problem together. I wish there were more opportunities for interaction but it may just be a reflection of the level I am at.    

Have you met interesting people and made connections?
Yes and I hope that I will run into some of these people at workshops and other events sometime.

Have you been to many other events?
I do attend seminars and was recently at an ICMS workshop “Multiscale methods for stochastic dynamical systems in biology” it wasn’t precisely in my area but it was very interesting and it was a very packed week of workshop.

Who is you favourite mathematician?
I don’t particularly have a favourite right now. When I was working in fluid flow area I admired Daniel Bernouilli

If you could solve one maths problem what would it be?
My PhD!

How can we increase diversity in mathematics?
My impression is that this is improving by itself.  I think there must be an upward trend. The tutorials I help in are certainly almost balanced in terms of gender. I certainly think that there are a wider variety of options for graduates now and that maybe staying on to do a PhD doesn’t sound as attractive as the offer and financial rewards available by going to work in industry. I think that mathematics should be bolder in advertising and promoting the opportunities to people to stay within mathematics and pursue PhDs and really achieve something remarkable and carry on their career in maths.  I was very impressed with one of the speakers from the workshop a few weeks ago, Sarah Harris. She was fabulous and surely she can encourage people to stay in maths. 

Do you prefer blackboard or Powerpoint?
I dislike over-prepared presentations and prefer, clear minimal LaTeX slides. Please keep the blackboards but I do far prefer pencil and paper over chalk!


ICMS gratefully acknowledge the financial contribution from MI-NET and Skyscanner towards this event. MI-NET is funded by COST through the EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020.

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