When am I ever going to use this?

The age-old question every math teacher, and perhaps every teacher, has ever been asked is: “When am I ever going to use this stuff?”

While it is true that much of the nuts and bolts of the material we teach will not be used by everyone in every field, I tell my students that they are learning much more than just math. In fact, mathematics can be appreciated by everyone for its pure beauty in much the same way that one does not have to be an artist in order to appreciate the pure beauty of art or music or literature, etc.

The most important thing we are teaching is a set of problem-solving skills that can translate across all aspects of life. In each of our math classes here at FM, we provide the students with a “tool box” of skills that they can reach into when faced with an unknown problem or challenge. This is exactly what we hope to provide to our students in the real world.

I tell my students that they are learning math AND learning how to face a problem — figure out how to go about a solution and then carry through with that solution. We have two choices: tackle the problem with the tools we are given, or crumple to the floor in the fetal position and wait for someone to call 911.

I share with my students a test I used to give when I was a truck driving instructor. The test consisted of ten questions and started out easy: “What is 10 percent of 2,500?” with question number 10 being: “If a tank’s legal capacity is 25,000 gallons, and 1 inch equals 500 gallons, then how many gallons can you put in the tank to bring it up to 90 percent of its legal capacity if there are already 42 inches in the tank?” We hauled specialty liquid chemicals in one of our divisions, and we could not afford to have a spill that required a hazardous materials response.

My students are awe-struck at the fact that truck drivers need to know how to do math. These problems are representative of any problem we might encounter in our curriculum here at FM. The question is, can we pull from our mathematical “tool box” and solve the problem, or throw in the towel and give up on a particular career just because there might be math involved?

I hope no one makes a decision about a career field based upon looking at the course catalog and seeing how many math courses are required. I don’t want any student to sell themselves short.

The question we should be asking ourselves is not, “When am I ever going to use this” but rather, “How can I use this to my advantage to tackle any problem I am faced with, math related or not?”

Mathew Kerns is an Instructor of Mathematics at FM.


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