Sophomore Emma Clifton par­tic­i­pates in the Applied Math Club. Breana Noble | Col­legian

How can email use an algo­rithm to sort out spam? How can a math model predict traffic flow changes with the intro­duction of self-driving vehicles? How can data analysis help states to create a renewable energy plan?

The Math­e­matical Contest in Mod­eling puts to work every­thing on which the Applied Math Club has focused since Sep­tember, when the club held its first-ever meeting, to answer ques­tions like these. The club takes the the­o­retical and tries to use it to solve problems in the real world, from business deci­sions to the best way to set up a March Madness bracket. The stu­dents have the oppor­tunity to learn skills including data ana­lytics, mod­eling, and com­puter pro­gramming that are useful in math-related career fields.

“We’re not just thinking about math because it’s homework,” said Mark Panaggio, assistant pro­fessor of math­e­matics and the club’s faculty adviser. “It’s because you enjoy it, and you enjoy the chal­lenge of solving a problem. We’re growing that love of math.”

In January, three teams of three stu­dents from the Applied Math Club par­tic­i­pated in the Math­e­matical Contest in Mod­eling com­pe­tition. Over four days, the groups each spent more than 30 hours writing a five-page report on several chal­lenges such as devel­oping models to track changes in the number of foreign lan­guage speakers to determine where a company should open inter­na­tional loca­tions. The contest’s results are expected to become available over the next several weeks.

Last year, two teams from Hillsdale College com­peted in the com­pe­tition against stu­dents from all over the world, though mostly from China. One team received hon­orable mention, fin­ishing in the top half of teams and beating 4,000 other teams.

“That’s pretty impressive, because some of these teams have coaches and study all year round for this,” Panaggio said. “Our stu­dents were just thrown into the fire.”

Stu­dents studying applied math, or not, meet weekly at noon on Tuesdays in Dow Science 110B (though next week’s will be on Monday because of a speaker). Typ­i­cally Panaggio presents a problem to solve, often a past chal­lenge of the Math­e­matical Contest in Mod­eling, and the group dis­cusses how it would use equa­tions, data, or com­puter pro­gramming to solve the problem.

“It’s given me a real appre­ci­ation for the types of real-world problems and strategies to tackle them,” said junior Gill West, who is studying applied math and phi­losophy. “We don’t nec­es­sarily have time to solve the problems, but we talk about how to approach them and set them up. Once you know how to solve it, it’s just a matter of typing it into the com­puter pro­gramming software.”

Panaggio added that he hopes the Applied Math Club even­tually can work with depart­ments on campus to assist them with data analysis.

The club also has speakers address the club about two to three times a semester. Recently, Pro­fessor of English Patricia Bart shared with the group how she uses com­puter pro­gramming in her research analysis of middle English lit­er­ature. Others have dis­cussed in what careers and field stu­dents can use their math­e­matical skills.

“It has made me under­stand what I can do with math,” said sophomore Emma Clifton, who is studying applied math­e­matics. “It’s not just abstract con­cepts, but it’s how can we use this in day-to-day life?”

Panaggio began working with stu­dents to start the club after a grad­u­ating senior expressed that he had wished he had more oppor­tu­nities to learn about data ana­lytics and com­puter pro­gramming as an under­graduate. He said the club still is fig­uring out what it is looking to accom­plish and the group often is dis­cussing about what the stu­dents want to learn.

One area of interest for many stu­dents is com­puter pro­gramming, Panaggio said. While many pro­fessors in the physics, chem­istry, and math­e­matics depart­ments may incor­porate some com­puter pro­gramming skills into their research and classes, Hillsdale right now lacks formal pro­gramming courses. Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Timothy Dolch, however, plans to teach a Python course next spring.

“You’re not going to graduate with an applied math major as a software developer,” Panaggio said, “but the hope is that you at least know the basics of pro­gramming so that when you go out in the work­force and need to learn Java, you at least have the foun­da­tions.”

West found that to be the case when he interned as a data analyst last summer and had to learn Python in the weeks leading up to the job.

“The applied math program focuses a lot on how to think problems through,” West said. “Majoring in com­puter science can be proof to employers that you are able to the work, but that’s where the Applied Math Club comes in for Hillsdale stu­dents. It’s: ‘Look what I learned on my own and in this group.’”

With Panaggio’s assis­tance, stu­dents have found resources to create pro­gramming study groups and learn lan­guages such as Python, and some stu­dents have had exposure to GNU Octave and MATLAB. In the club, the stu­dents may write down in English the steps a com­puter pro­grammer would take to solve the problem to become familiar with the thinking process.

Clifton said overall the Applied Math Club pro­vides a hands-on oppor­tunity to relate the the­o­retical with the real world.

“You see how math requires knowledge of other things,” Clifton said. “You use common sense to see if this really is coherent. Does it make sense to have neg­ative of some­thing? When you are deter­mining the amount of money of some­thing, you have to ask, ‘Is that rea­sonable?’”