Wednesday, March 20, 2019

When Will I Ever Use This?

Image result for math class

Environmental & Science Education
Mathematics Education
Edward Hessler

Students sometimes ask something along the lines of "Why do I have to learn this (name subject)? When will I ever use this?"

Former member of the Minnesota House Phyllis Kahn provides a great example of when we will use something we were not keen to learn.  It is especially lovely because it involves maths where the questions above are not uncommon. Shudder! It is not one of those problems with answers (odd numbers) in the back of the book but something more important, an idea, a concept to be taken away and used throughout life no matter what we find ourselves doing.

In a recent editorial column, Peter Huthchinson who served as finance commissioner under Governor Rudy Perpich took a swing at the Star Tribune editorial board who advocated that inflation be a factor in the state's economic forecast ("Why inflation doesn't belong in spending forecasts," March 10 2019. It was eliminated under his leadership and advocacy.*)

In a letter to the Star Tribune (March 17, 2019) Kahn noted the mistake of appointing "folks without knowledge of the basic principles of mathematics to positions where this is a prerequisite." The prerequisite to which she refers is surprisingly simple but a basic. Kahn points out that "an equation is invalid when a crucial part occurs on one side and not the other." (underline added)

I once sat in on a summer program designed to certify teachers to teach physics. It was taught by Hamline University physics professor Andy Rundquist. He used a teaching technique that I thought was brilliant. He would ask students struggling with a problem about the construction of fractions and equations. They were mostly in a hurry to solve something, get an answer, and hope its right. End of story. He wanted them to slow down, forget the rush to an answer and think about the tools they were using.

About fractions which are sometimes more than half the content of a physics formula with several terms on top and bottom, Professor Rundquist asked what's on top? what's on bottom?  Why are they there? What would happen if...?  Does your answer make sense? He did the same with equations. What's on the left side? what's on the right side? What if...? What's missing and why does it make a difference? Does your solution make sense?

As we are fond of saying "this is not rocket science." Phyliss Kahn is promoting mathematics for citizenship, useful whether you are a finance commissioner or a voter.

*In another letter on the same date about the same topic former Governor Arne Carlson responded. His administration immediately followed Perpich-Hutchinson. Carlson noted the effect of that innumeracy: a $2.3 billion deficit, a down graded bond rating and the depletion of the state's reserve funds.

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