Bird song and mathematics may not come to mind automatically as a pairing, but the combination won national awards for two Hope College students earlier this summer.

Seniors Russell Houpt of Britton and Sarah Seckler of Mundelein, Illinois, each earned recognition for outstanding research presentations during MathFest, the annual national conference of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which was held on Wednesday-Friday, July 26-28, in Chicago, Illinois.  Houpt garnered the Janet L. Andersen Award for the outstanding presentation in mathematical biology for “Name that Bird! Using Neural Networks to Identify Bird Songs.”  Seckler received a Pi Mu Epsilon Outstanding Speaker Award for her discussion of “What Bird Was That? Feature Extraction of Recorded Bird Songs for Neural Networks.”

There were more than 250 student speakers at MathFest.  Approximately 2,500 people attended the conference.

Houpt and Seckler conducted their research earlier in the summer with mathematics faculty members Dr. Mark Pearson and Dr. Darin Stephenson.  Their work was part of an ongoing effort to help computers learn to identify bird species based on audio recordings of bird songs. The motivation for the project comes from environmental science studies in which researchers use audio recordings to track bird locations and populations. A key step in the process is identifying bird species from the recordings, which can be time-consuming if an individual has to listen to every recording. The hope is to speed the process by teaching computers to do the analysis.

The Janet L. Andersen Award itself has particular meaning for the Department of Mathematics at Hope.  Andersen was a member of the college’s mathematics faculty from 1991 until her untimely death in 2005 due to an automobile accident.  An acclaimed teacher and a member of both the MAA and Pi Mu Epsilon, Andersen was actively involved nationally in efforts to improve undergraduate science and mathematics education.  She had been developing a sophomore-level mathematical biology course at the time of her death.  Two of the awards, which are sponsored by Bio SigMAA, a special interest group of the MAA, are presented each year.

Multiple Hope students have won awards at MathFest through the years.  In 2016, senior Taylor Rink of Byron Center and junior Allison VanderStoep of Holland won both Andersen Awards.

The MAA, established in 1915, is the largest professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level.  The association’s members include university, college and high school teachers; graduate and undergraduate students; pure and applied mathematicians; computer scientists; statisticians; and many others in academia, government, business and industry.

Pi Mu Epsilon is an honor society dedicated to promoting true scholarship, especially in mathematics.  Established in 1914, Pi Mu Epsilon today has 397 chapters, including the Michigan Delta Chapter — the fourth chapter in Michigan — established at Hope in 1972.