By Carla Ceballos
August is in full swing and here at the library: people are turning in their summer reading and getting ready for school!
As we enter into Indian Summer there are some things we look forward to–such as football–and other things that we are excited about–such as math homework.
I would like to take this moment to come to math’s defense. Math is a misunderstood subject (what are those “powers” and “polynomials” all about anyway? and who gave all that power to math?!) and it is often under appreciated. I mean, balancing your checkbook is math, right? Who has fun with that? And why should you have to take so much math in primary, secondary, and college education in order to just be able to balance your checkbook once you are a responsible adult?
But, as I tell my frustrated math students, math is so much more than adding, subtracting, or even calculating powers. Danica McKellar sums it nicely: “I tell students that even if they don’t like math right now, they can use math as a brain-sharpening tool – a tool that not only builds the foundation for a great career, but that also builds self-confidence, no matter what they choose to do with their lives.” The basic mental skills of math–logic, critical thinking, and asking questions–can be applied to every field, from Literature to nursing to working as a store clerk.
Even word problems have their merit. Cornell math professor Steven Strogatz presents the following word problem: supposing it takes three men three hours to paint three fences, how long would it take one man to paint one fence? As you wrestle with the answer, Strogatz muses “The undistracted reasoning that this problem requires is one of the most valuable things about word problems. They force us to pause and think, often in unfamiliar ways. They give us practice in being mindful.”
Being mindful gives depth to our human experience. Understanding that math is beauty opens the doors to understanding the universe in which we live. From the way flowers and fruit arrange themselves according to Fibonacci or Lucas numbers to attempting to number the stars, there is wonder to behold.
If nothing else, we can enjoy mathematical poetry:
A dozen, a gross, and a score, plus three times the square root of four,
divided by seven, plus five times eleven,
is nine squared and not a bit more.
—Jon Saxton (math textbook author)