Why do we need to learn math?

There are actually thousands of different jobs that require some knowledge of mathematics. Here are more than 30 firsthand accounts from Mathematicians at Work telling what some college math majors are doing, from an Air Traffic Control Systems Analyst and a Lawyer to a Data Capture Facility Troubleshooter on the Hubble space telescope.

Exactly How Is Math Used In Technology?, from the Mathematics Department of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, provides examples of math uses for biomedical engineering, food technology, building technology, chemical sciences, civil and structural engineering, graphics and computer-aided drawing (CAD), electronics, environmental health, mechanical engineering, mining technology, nuclear medicine, occupational health, petroleum technology, prosthetics, forestry and wildlife, robotics, and surveying.

Examining How Mathematics is Used in the Workplace, by Annie and John Selden for the Mathematical Association of America’s Teaching and Learning Research Sampler, provides abstracts of studies on how much mathematics is used in various occupations: Mathematics in Automobile Production; Proportional Reasoning by Nurses; Modeling the Mathematics of Banking; Mathematical Models as Seen by Biologists; and How do Scientists Interpret Graphs?

From the Dr. Math Archives

Why Is Math Important?

Math Used Every Day

Math in Everyday Life

Math in Everyday Life: Projects

What’s the Purpose of Algebra?

Jobs That Use Geometry

Real-World Carpentry and Trigonometry

Mathematics in the Applied Sciences

Why do we need algebra?

Why Study Practical Geometry?

Math and the Law

The Importance of Math

Do We Really Need to Learn Math?

Where Are Derivatives Used in Real Life?

Why Do I Need to Study Math?

Why Do We Have to Study Math in School?

What is Geometry For?

From the Math Forum’s Key Issues in Mathematics

Why should students take mathematics courses?

Tom Davis, Principal Scientist, Silicon Graphics Inc.

Lee Rainwater, Professor of Sociology (retired), Harvard University

Colin Adams, written for the undergraduates of Williams College

From the emailbag…

Dear Dr. Math,

Why is math one of the most important subjects that we study in school? – Thanks, Katie

Hi Katie,

Probably because it is used in so many other subjects. There are uses of mathematics in all the “hard” sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics; the “soft” sciences, such as economics, psychology, and sociology; engineering fields, such as civil, mechanical, and industrial engineering; and technological fields such as computers, rockets, and communications. There are even uses in the arts, such as sculpture, drawing, and music. In addition, anything which uses a computer uses mathematics, and you probably are aware of how many things that is!

Furthermore, learning mathematics forces one to learn how to think very logically and to solve problems using that skill. It also teaches one to be precise in thoughts and words. Practice doing that is obviously very useful in many different areas of life.

– Doctor Rob, The Math Forum

Dear Dr. Math,

In algebra we are dealing with rates of change. What is the point of using this? What kind of jobs need algebra? – Derek

Dear Derek,

Rate of change comes up a lot in physics. How fast is something moving? The answer is the rate of change with respect to time of its distance from a reference point.

If my variable rate mortgage goes up 1 percent, how will that affect my mortgage payment? The answer is a rate of change.

Many other similar situations could be quoted to you. Rate of change really is often found in practical, everyday problems. And any kind of technical job, from computer programmer to traffic engineer to tax accountant, involves some algebra – even carpentry sometimes uses it! Many of these jobs pay well and are very enjoyable.

– Doctor Rob, The Math Forum

Dear Dr. Math,

I’ve asked people over and over again what science has to do with math. I think it has to do with measurement. – Thank you, Tawny.

Hi, Tawny!

Great question. I love it when people really think about what is going on.

Measurement is certainly a major contribution of math to the many areas of science. Not just length measurements, either, but also time, velocity, quanitity, volume, and even probability. Math helps scientists and engineers use measurements they have made on certain areas of their systems to calculate other measurements they have not made but want to know. In some cases the measurements that are desired could not be made any other way; for instance, the speed of light was first calculated by bouncing light across a great distance and back while measuring the time it took. The distance divided by the time gave the speed of light.

Math is also used in science to prove formulas from the basic concepts of how our universe works (we call these first principles). This is a very important part of it to me, as that is what I do. I take some basic principles about a problem I want to solve, design a math model that fits the description, and then try to prove some property I would like to use from the model. This type of scientific work is called theoretical, and the results from it are then used by other scientist and engineers in what we consider applied sciences.

Math has often been referred to as the language of science, as everything we do involves math, from the formulas we use to model the world, to the trials and measurements we use to test and apply our models.

I hope this has helped to explain the connection. Math is critical to science, so if you are interested in becoming a scientist or engineer then I really encourage you to keep studying your math. Even if you aren’t thinking of going into science or engineering, math is heavily used in business, economics, social studies, communication, etc. In reality math is the basic language of the world, for everyone uses math in most everything they do (often without realizing it).

Math can be a great friend to you in whatever you want to do, so keep up the good work.

– Doctor Keith, The Math Forum

Dear Dr. Math,

When would you use Pythagorean Theorem in a real life job?

– Charlene Young, Hancock County Middle School

Hi –

There are lots of times you might need to know! Heck, even if you don’t have a job and you sit around and watch TV all day, you need to know. For instance, if you’re going to buy a TV you need to know it: let’s say you’re looking for the biggest TV that will fit on your TV table, which is 15 inches wide. But TV screens aren’t measured by how wide they are, they’re measured by the diagonal distance across the screen. Ding! Pythagorean theorem!

Some examples of jobs that use the Pythagorean theorem every day are engineers (bridges and buildings are essentially made of lots of triangles – it makes them strong), pilots and navigators (to figure out distances and headings), football players (“should I run straight up the field, or diagonally?”), and musicians (well, perhaps I can’t think of a way musicians use it, but they do use other contributions that Pythagoras made to music – scales and tuning).

– Doctor Ken, The Math Forum

On the Web:

Why Study Math…. – Sue Esch, Mathematics, Juniata College

Because mathematics is intriguing. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Mathematics is the subject in which we do not know what we are talking about nor whether what we say is true.” So, perhaps, first and foremost, we should study it to find out what it is. We owe it to ourselves to at least know what mathematics is before we claim that it isn’t really important in our daily lives or before we close off career opportunities which depend on it.

Why Study Math? – University of Montana

What Can You Do with a Math Major? Even if you do not choose a career in the mathematical sciences, studying as much mathematics as you can is a good way to keep your options open. Mathematics is an excellent foundation for, and is usually a prerequisite to, all areas of science and engineering. Students in such areas as anthropology, sociology and psychology, as well as law, business and medicine benefit from a solid background in mathematics and statistics. In addition, mathematical training will help you to better understand science and technology and their effects on our world.

Why Study Mathematics & Statistics? – Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada

Here are just a few of the fields in which mathematics and statistics graduates have found employment: Insurance and insurance related business, where actuarial mathematics is the foundation of the entire industry; computer systems and technology, education, government, banking, accounting, telecommunications, management consulting, environmental science, information systems, and operations research.

Why did I study mathematics? – Prof. Angelo Mingarelli

[Mathematics] requires a special, almost new, way of thinking, thought patterns which are incongruous with our daily experiences. Would you be thinking about the proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus while you’re shopping for groceries, or wonder whether or not Mercury will ever crash into the sun while whitewater rafting? How about whether or not the sun will actually rise tomorrow morning while on a date? Probably not… unless you’re on your way to being, or are, a mathematician….

There are many other interesting questions to be asked. Why should the public support mathematics? What do mathematicians do that is important? The Math Forum has collected some answers – see “Key Questions for Mathematics.”

How to study math

Learning Strategies Database (Center for Advancement of Learning, Muskingum College). Background information, purposes and advantages of various strategies, and descriptions of specific strategies for studying math. The site includes general tips and suggestions, strategies for information organization, and substitution and memory strategies.

Success in Mathematics: from the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Saint Louis University. Tips on how to study mathematics, how to approach problem-solving, how to study for and take tests, and when and how to get help.

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