If you are involved in education in any way, you’ve heard math students exclaim, “when am I ever going to use this _____________ (fill in the blank) in real life?” Obviously, the answer is that you will use it, you just don’t know when. But, that leaves a hole in both their knowledge and applications for critical thinking.
Last fall, my mom was infirmed. She spent over a week in an ICU, went to a transitional care unit, and then to a long-term care facility. She wanted to come home but her mobility was an issue. At one point we had to consider helping my dad put a ramp into the house to help her enter with a walker or wheelchair (if needed ).
I was charged with the duty of looking at available wheelchair ramps. My sister, who is intelligent, wanted a ramp that could be thrown on or off the two sets of steps leading to my parent’s front door. I thought to myself, that’s ridiculous! Ramps are heavy. And, to get a low enough rise for her to be able to propel herself or my dad (85) to push, we needed a longer ramp. Dad can’t be throwing around a ramp, especially one that is (x) feet long.
Can you see where I’m going? Math! It’s useful in life.
Although we did not have to figure out the rise over the run of a ramp that would work, I knew this was a case where knowing math in one’s future life applies. Math, it’s everywhere, and it does apply to life. Most high school students are just not able to see that yet.
Another applicable geriatric math problem is determining the turning radius in bathrooms. After this experience with my mom, I realized that only one of the three toilets in their rambling ranch home was accessible with a walker. Two are in what would be described as “water closets” a popular home design component in the past that seems to persist now in some cases. Whoever thought to put a toilet in a closed-off space never cared for an elderly parent. This is a more complicated math problem, and I’m sure that logistics trump numbers in this case. But, being able to enter a space with an assistive device and turn around easily, can also be determined by using math.
I don’t have a lot of math in my background. I loved high school math until I had a trigonometry teacher tell me I had a stupid question. It’s scary how that negative experience was repeated for one of my sons. It turned us both off to the world of numbers. I never took any more math classes, despite having two master’s degrees in two different disciplines. The math I needed to be a NICU nurse consisted of learning to calculate minuscule drug dosages and drips for tiny babies. In many cases, this was life-saving math. A mistake made with a potent drug for a baby that weighed less than two pounds could be deadly. Micrograms and milligrams are NOT equivalent. Accuracy was paramount. The math needed for working as an environmental educator is more of the everyday math that everyone should know. Calculating square footage, growing space, yield, and understanding plant biology all involve math. The elementary-aged students that participated in the after-school garden club I ran for 15 years were exposed to how math could be applied in the garden. As they began to see, there were many ways math was useful.
I think when educators are faced with the question of “where am I ever going to use this math?” The answer needs to be “let’s find out.” And, have real-life examples to have them work out and see for themselves that, truly, as my youngest son said in third grade – math is everywhere!
And, as for the ramp, if you’d like to know how to calculate the length a ramp needs to be to get a certain rise, just search online – there are tons of workable, real-life problems for students to explore.
Lastly, I think that we’ve done our students a disservice by squeezing trigonometry into other courses. In this time of imminent educational reform, maybe reinstituting trigonometry courses could be done. We can use this time to redesign education to become more applicable to life and have students begin to see that math is useful.