Using Math in the Real World

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"Using Math in the Real World"
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How math is used in the real world, despite what students say

Are math skills necessary to function effectively in the real world? Of course you will keep better track of things and use your money more efficiently if you can understand and use some fundamental mathematics. A carpenter needs to understand measurement units and how to work with them, along with some understanding of basic geometry. A farmer needs to be able to use mathematical skills to figure acreage, yields, and expenses like fertilizer and pesticide (if the farmer uses them).

If you have a credit card, the company tells you the interest rate you are charged on the unpaid balance. But to know the real difference, in dollars, between the cost of carrying a balance on two cards with different rates you need some basic math skills. Of course we all use calculators to do as much as possible of the tedious job of crunching numbers. Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing are all easily performed with a very cheap hand-held. But you need to know the underlying rules of mathematical operations in order to know which numbers to manipulate and in what way. Hardly anybody calculates a square root by hand anymore. Most people do not even know how to do it. It is necessary, however, to know what a square root is in order to use the concept.

Here are a couple of examples of the need for basic math skills in daily life. If you drove 267 miles between fill-ups and your car then took 10.4 gallons of gas, what was your average mileage? If you are using a recipe that says it feeds 3-4 people, how should the amount of ingredients be modified if you plan to feed 5 people? If a piece of meat should be cooked for 18 minutes per pound, how long should it stay in the oven if it weighs 14pounds 3 ounces? You can use a calculator for the drudge work but you must first understand the principles involved in order to know which numbers to enter and what to do with them.

What is called higher math, however, is absolutely useless unless you have a science-focused career. I have never, not a single time, had any use for analytic geometry, calculus, or differential equations in my daily life, although I studied all of them. Set theory is intriguing but not applicable to daily living. As for multiplying one matrix by another, it does not help you figure out the best deal in the grocery store.

It does appear that a lot of otherwise functional adults did not learn enough basic math. They enthusiastically sign up to buy a home which will require monthly payments they cannot possibly make. Maybe they do understand the underlying math but think it somehow does not apply to them.

Many of these math-challenged adults have also been in the news recently for eagerly buying into Madoff's Ponzi scheme. They looked at reports that showed a high rate of return (astonishingly high) and never asked about the underlying investments on which the payouts were based. The few who did ask were shown reports which showed the fund moving rapidly in and out of various positions in such things as commodities. Some managers of other funds looked at the reports of this trading and examined market results from some of the days on which large moves by Madoff's fund were claimed. They found those trades had, in fact, never taken place, and as a result, advised their clients to stay from Madoff. At least one even submitted a detailed complaint to the SEC. The complaint was ignored.

If you do not understand basic math, you will consistently pay more than you should for what you buy. If you do understand math but do not apply it, you might as well not know it.

More about this author: James Boyd

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