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?’”