Monday, December 21, 2009

Why math?

The following was on the latest math department newsletter. It is a collection of responses of faculty and graduate students to the question "Why math?", compiled by Kelly MacArthur, the undergraduate advisor at Utah. Hopefully, if you're in another department and wondering why you have to take a math class, this will help you see how you'll benefit.
  • Lots of students understand the merit of cross-training at the gym. They willingly endure the tedium of repetitive exercises for isolated muscle groups in order to improve overall fitness. Nobody really lifts weights to get better at lifting weights (with the exception of, like, Olympic weight-lifters) - they do it to get stronger for other stuff. Similarly, most people won't use calculus every day, but learning calculus contributes to overall mental agility. A proper education should provide intellectual cross-training.

  • Successful students in math classes typically figure out that methodical, well-organized approaches to problem solving are much more effective than random, haphazard attempts. This is a valuable skill that translates well to anyone's life.

  • Taking a math class is simply part of a well-rounded education, like taking an art class, or a foreign language.

  • Mathematics exercises the brain, making students stronger thinkers in general. (This is kinda going back to the intellectual cross-training idea.) Math courses present a series of puzzles to solve and rules and procedures to use in solving them, with the purpose of strengthening analytical thinking skills.

  • As long as we're on the subject, let's talk about this "analytical" word for a second. "Analytical thinking" is a term that's bandied about a lot without people necessarily understanding it. The word "analyze" means "to break apart", so what you're doing is chopping what looks like an insurmountable problem into several pieces that you DO know how to solve. This is another one of those valuable life skills.

  • Students possessing the math skills found in these courses will be promoted more quickly in many jobs, will avoid being prey for financial scams, and will have the skills necessary to make informed decisions on significant issues. It's numerical literacy, and it's becoming more and more important in our world.

  • From a math graduate student: "On my first co-op job, I got hired to work at a bank helping the company implement/transition over to some new software that is used to evaluate stocks, bonds, etc. I asked my boss why he hired mathematicians for this job when there wasn't any "math" involved. "Wouldn't it be better to hire someone with a strong business/finance background instead of someone from math who doesn't know much about business?" I asked. He told me that he hires math students because of how they're trained to think, not what they know about the business world. Math students are trained to take apart a big problem, troubleshoot those pieces, and then troubleshoot putting the pieces back together again." (There's that "analytical thinking" thing again.)