Math Mondays: Seriously, When I am ever going to need this?

How many times have you heard this from your students?  For me, my students often ask why they have to learn "this."  I try whenever possible to be able to answer that question.  This was easier when I was in Algebra and Geometry, but now that I teach primarily Algebra 2 and above, I find that question increasingly difficult.  Sometimes I have no answer, and I am always honest with my students.  I tell them that most of them won't use it, particularly if they don't end up in a math or science field.  Still, the logical thinking and problem solving skills are important in all professions.  

BUT when I can answer with a real-world application, I do.  Here are some of my favorite applications for upper level math concepts:

  • Compound interest: calculating how much that college loan will cost or borrowing to buy a car (something relevant to students; why are we always teaching compound interest with mortgages?)
  • Trigonometric functions: designing a roof, navigating a boat: mapping the stars 

  • Logarithms: finding out about your heart, understanding earthquakes, mixing sound; finding the PH balance 
  • Function transformations: animation 
  • Mean, median, mode, standard deviation, linear regression and other statistical analysis: understanding your scores (grade); reading polling data; looking at colleges; analyzing an athletes performances; predicting march madness winners; and of course, so much more.  Statistics show up all over the place, and I challenge students to bring in examples they find.
  • Conics: well, pretty much you aren't using them unless you are designing telescopes, but they still can be fun.

I also reached out to my friend Jean at Flamingo Math who is an amazing resource for Calculus and beyond.  I loved what she shared with me and wanted to share with you:  

"Looking back over 23 years of teaching,  I have found that my students are more engaged when I create “pseudo-real world” problems that place them in the general mix of some situation.  I’m attaching some of their favorites for you to see, here.  No matter how many times I collect actual data about real world items that apply to the concepts taught, students find the most meaningful items to be those that place their peers, or the teacher, in some zany situations. In fact, this year’s group of kiddos are still making funny comments about Daniel and his flying squirrel suit.  Of course, the liberal students like to pick on him about his conservative views. So, we are constantly laughing with him when he tells us about his dream to help President Trump construct the wall! They give me lots of material from which to build fun scenarios. I include a test question on every unit that relates curriculum content to my students and their antics, in some way." - Jean Adams

A great example of her incorporation of students in her activities in her Calculus Related Rates Sort Match Activity.   Says Jean, "I even wrote a special homework for them that year, related to my wedding. I think this group of students understood related rates more than any other year I’ve ever taught AP Calculus."  

So, maybe it isn't always about relating to the real-world but can be about relating to the students themselves.  I think both work and am glad for the sound words of Jean.  

What are some of your ways to connect students to higher-level math concepts?  Join the conversation in the comments section.

Math Mondays 
is a bi-weekly blog post (2nd and 4th Monday of each month) sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching math.  If you have questions or think there is something I should include, you can leave me a message in the comments section below or at the store in the question and answer section.