Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

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Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby Arkham » Wed Aug 17, 2011 7:55 pm UTC

One of the things I always hated about math in jr/high school was the feeling that I would never use it. And beyond the basic arithmetic I've basically been correct. I don't need to factor fractions, memorizing the quadratic equation was useless and trigonometry has been a bust. Other than going to college to in preparation for a career in mathematics or engineering, I still can't see a use for learning all this stuff in high school.

Now that I've spawned and my children are growing up, its going to be hard for me to find reasons for them to learn this stuff, other than saying "Because you have to."

Do people have examples of actually using these concepts in real life?

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby Yesila » Thu Aug 18, 2011 5:02 am UTC

For people not involved directly with the sciences you typically won't find lot's of direct application. Similar to how most people don't get to directly apply what they learned about the roman empire, or about gerunds, or chord progression, or about the conjugation of french verbs -- Yet as you say many people are forced to take math; as well as history, english, music, and french classes , etc. Lot's of skills... but really very little direct application of those skills will ever happen for most people.

What we do learn in all those sorts of classes (and what we do use in our everyday life) is the ability to learn.... the ability to think... and the ability to reason. (As well as other "meta" skills I'm sure others will point out)

For math in particular the most often talked about (non-math) skills that we hope people are learning are problem solving and logic. Both of these can be taught in other contexts.

For instance problem solving is picked up in many places in any number of places where "hands-on" approaches are attempted with limited tools. Various "shop" classes (wood-shop, metal, auto etc) taught in High schools present students with a task, a few tools and some raw materials; figure out how to make something great kids! Another nice example is in a first or second year language class -- the students know a handful of words, some of the conjugations and tenses for various verbs... now figure out how to have a conversation and convey certain ideas. Problem solving at work!

Logic can be well addressed in philosophy classes or even in a well taught literature class. A debate course is another wonderful place to pick up some logic. Computer programing classes too... pick up a lot of problem solving there as well.

Anyway, most people certainly don't learn math so they can complete the square, or factor a polynomial, or find the roots of an equation. But hopefully all that rewriting and rearranging equations to achieve a desired outcome using only the handful of "legal" manipulations you had been taught thus far improves your problem solving techniques. Answering page after page of word problems -- trying to make the lessons of that day,week, unit fit into the context of whatever random widgits and do-dads train A is carrying towards Train B at 90 mph -- more problem solving. Writing down your answers... trying to convince your teacher that 1) you're right and 2) this is why... Logic is being learned.

10 years later your boss says "Figure out how to do 'this thing' then give a presentation and convince everyone your method works and is the best way to do it." Problem solving to figure out how to get it done, logic to build the argument to convince everyone your right. That's where you used the skills you learned in math class.

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby Nlelith » Thu Aug 18, 2011 5:13 am UTC

I use math when building things in minecraft sometimes. For example, when building a sandstone pyramid I had to work out how many blocks long the base had to be in order for the very top to be a single block.

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby D.B. » Thu Aug 18, 2011 7:45 am UTC

If they want to start their own business this stuff comes in handy. Being able to perform regression on data to get an estimate of trends and seasonal variation, solve constrained optimisation problems (e.g. what stock to buy given available storage space and cost), or perform rough monte carlo simulations using excel, will give them a starting point to make better informed decisions with. Sure, you don't have to be able to do all this stuff to run a business, and plenty get by just fine without it. But having extra skills to fall back on rarely hurts.

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby gorcee » Thu Aug 18, 2011 12:58 pm UTC

Almost nothing studied in high school, or before, is directly applicable to real life.

When was the last time you genuinely concerned yourself with subject-verb order, or whether you used the past participle correctly? Or, aside from barroom trivia, do you find many applications for the details of Benedict Arnold's piecemeal navy? Or, like me, do you remember "I Pack My Apples Tightly" is a mnemonic device for remembering "Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase" but have no idea what any of those things mean? Why do we learn about the Titanic in elementary school, which has little overall impact on how we live our lives (certainly no more impact than any other transportation disaster before or since)?

There are two reasons that I can think of:

First, we learn these things because they are important to our cultural identity. Even if you are not a historian or even a history buff, it is important to have learned about our history. People make the argument that "you need to know history to prevent making the same mistakes." That would be valid if that was actually applied ever. Instead, we frequently forget history, and despite our massive information capabilities in the modern world, can't even hold politicians liable for things that happened like, last year. Likewise, we can claim to study grammar to be better at communication, but even if you mess up the structure of a sentence I will probably understand exactly what you're trying to say, as will pretty much everyone else. Maybe the pedants will try to stick it to you on an internet forum instead of addressing your actual point, but they too understand what you're saying.

Second, high-school education is not intended to teach everyone only the skills they will need for a chosen career. Unless you go to a vocational or agricultural school, there simply isn't enough time -- and the students are not mature enough -- to understand things in sufficient detail to make the real world work. You could be the best programmer in the world coming out of high school, but you'll be a shitty software developer. Why? Because you don't understand things like software documentation, teamwork, cost management, quality control, etc. In other words, a 17 year old kid, despite his/her talents, is not experienced or mature enough to understand business. (Neither is a 22 year old kid, but at least they are four years more mature, and hopefully, somewhat humbled by their professors/peers).

Furthermore, students don't really know what it is that they do and don't want to do. Seriously, like, a 15 year old kid doesn't want to do anything that he learns in any of his subjects. He wants to make youtube videos and play Xbox. A high-schooler has no idea what a biomedical engineer does. Many of them probably don't even know that such a thing exists. But in a few years, when choosing a career path and a major, the student might all of a sudden find himself needing quadratic formulas all the time, even if he had no prior intention of going into mathematics.

So, in the end, all subjects are equally useful and useless in the real world. You won't know what you do and don't need until you get there. You might never need to use the quadratic formula. I almost never need to know about precise grammar structures and whatnot. You might be a copy editor.

Almost all of us fall into our careers with some degree of happenstance. High school is there to give us the tools to succeed in areas we might not have imagined ourselves in.

So, to answer the question of "why should I learn this?" the most simple answer is, "because you cannot possibly know right now that you won't someday need it, and that it won't someday make you rich."

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby Adam H » Thu Aug 18, 2011 3:09 pm UTC

Well, "everyday life" is pretty varying. I don't know what you do all day, so your question is hard to answer. Some random examples off the top of my head are:

How much dirt do you need to level out your yard, and how much grass do you need to cover it completely afterwards? How many flowers should you buy if they need to be spaced 6 inches apart in a particular area?

If you know the dimensions of a room, how far is it from one corner to the opposite?

If you want to reduce your water bill by a certain amount, how much less should you water your lawn?

If you put $50 every paycheck into a 5% interest fund, how much money will you have in 20 years? It's easy to find interest calculators online, but if that's an acceptable excuse then basic arithmatic shouldn't be necessary either...

If you get a 5% raise every year, when will you start making a 6 figure salary?

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby Cleverbeans » Thu Aug 18, 2011 4:17 pm UTC

Unfortunately all the truly useful, transferable skills you can acquire by doing math were removed from the math curriculum in favor of "practical" applications in the sciences instead. I expect you had a similar experience to most where you spent high school doing the same plug-n-chug equations over and over again rather than learning how to do deductive reasoning or apply mathematical definitions to model real world problems. Please don't blame the subject, rather the incompetent educators who established the math curriculum without actually including any math in it.

I think you'll discover that it's not just math class, basically every class beyond primary school has no practical application other than to prepare you for more classes. I tend to agree with Frank Zappa - " "Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts."
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." - Abraham Lincoln

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby radams » Tue Aug 23, 2011 5:15 pm UTC

The reason to learn mathematics is to be able to understand science, technology, economics and statistics. You want to do this for two reasons: because you need to in order to make important decisions in an informed way (from which mortgage to take out, to where to invest your money, to whom to vote for); and because otherwise you are cutting yourself off from so much that is known about how the world around you works.

I'm not talking about being able to read technical papers, or make a living as a scientist. But I am talking about being able to critically evaluate books, press articles, and political claims on science or economics. Not just understand the words enough to accept them as received truths; but to decide for yourself whether the evidence justifies the conclusions.

No, you don't "need" to understand them; that is, without them, you'll probably survive. You might even get rich (although you have just cut yourself off from a large number of high-earning careers). But you'll constantly be relying on other people's opinions and taking things on trust.

Maybe you'll just decide to believe whatever the majority of scientists . Maybe you'll decide to trust a particular newspaper, or a particular political party. Maybe you'll become a cynic, and decide that nobody really knows anything for certain.

None of those sound like the actions of a free agent, or the way a citizen of a modern democracy is meant to behave. Yes, sadly, most people don't, and our media and political parties have adapted to that fact. All the more reason to lift yourself and your children above the crowd.

For example, Arkham, you've been asking about the Uncertainty Principle in the Science forum. If you want to understand an answer that goes beyond the populist accounts (which are all just imperfect metaphors), you'll find yourself needing maths beyond basic arithmetic very quickly.

The quadratic formula, for example, is one tool you need in order to be able to graph a quadratic function; and that is something that we make students do over and over again in order that they have a feel for what it means when we say that a relationship is described by a quadratic function, such as "the population is growing quadratically". To really understand this - not just repeat the definition ("It means the formula will have an [imath]x^2[/imath] term in it"), but have an intuitive feel for what such growth is like - you have to put in the hours.

Even then, you might argue that many topics in maths classes are unnecessary. We should teach them the topics that they need to get a basic understanding of science, but not the others.

Well, firstly, I don't think anyone can predict which topics are which. But more importantly, why shouldn't each student be taken as far as they can? What else do they have to do with their time? We should teach the "useless" topics in order to give them the opportunity to find uses for them later. The fact that the children find them boring or difficult is not a good enough reason to withhold them. (And, actually, learning how to work hard at a task you find difficult and unpleasant is a very important skill to acquire at an early age.)

Understanding trigonometry increased the number of career options open to you, and the number of subjects that it is possible for you to understand. If the choices you made ended up leading you down different routes instead, at least they were yours to make, and were not made for you at an early age by a teacher or a school board.

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Re: Practical applications of maths in everyday life?

Postby doogly » Tue Aug 23, 2011 6:23 pm UTC

You've got it backwards.

Do not think "What on earth will I ever need any of this nonsense for?" Because if you think this way, you can be certain that you will absolutely never use any of it. In fact, you don't even need to *think.* At all. You can get through your daily life with no thought whatsoever. Punch in, punch out. Die.
Think "Sweet! I knew extra things! Let me go find things to do with this!" You will find yourself thinking about the wave equation as sheets of water flow down a hill in a rainstorm. It will be delightful.

This sort of conversation happened very explicitly in the stats class I taught last spring. Everyone was a construction management major there, with a few exceptions. "We don't actually need this for the jobs we expect to have." "Get good at this and start expecting a better job then. Tell anyone who interviews you that you have this skill they might not expect you to have."
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