Thursday, October 9, 2008

A project for students who ask: "When will we ever use this in the real world?"

Every year I've taught math, kids have tested me with the age-old "When will we ever use this in the real world?" question. It's a ridiculous question, of course, mostly asked as an avoidance behavior by students who just don't want to do their work. It sets them up for failure in the short term and the long term, because in their view, there's no point to what we're doing.

Nevertheless, I am not one to minimize student questions, even silly ones. I tend to answer almost every question that's thrown my way. So when I heard this issue of relevance brought up years ago, I figured there was a very easy way to answer them definitively: show them the wide range of jobs that require math skills, most of which don't require any sort of math degree.

Thus I developed my Math in the Real World project, where students would use Internet job search engines to seek positions requiring some kind of math skills. For each job, they would fill out a profile that included the pertinent details and qualifications. Afterward, they would reflect on their findings: What did you learn? What was the most surprising job you found? Is there a field you now want to learn more about?

This project has always been a rousing success, and our first day of research today was no exception. I made only two small changes to the version I used with my former students this past May:
  1. I removed from the list of search engines because it was too focused on obvious math-related jobs (engineering, computers and other high-tech positions) and the descriptions were too full of technical jargon that only served to confuse and frustrate my students. I added the more general search engine Simply Hired to replace it.
  2. I looked up a new job for the sample profile that was both local and a job that appeared to be completely unrelated to math on the surface. It was a health care position focused on diabetes treatment.
I didn't have to do much in terms of introducing the project, beyond stating the simple purpose of it: to show students that there are a lot of places where you can use math in the real world, many of which you would never think of, and most of which don't require a math degree. I told students that they could easily search for jobs they might be interested in by searching for "math" followed by the type of job or career they were thinking about (i.e. "math real estate" or "math health care").

These are some of the more intriguing jobs students found today:
  1. Cook at a nursing home
  2. Real Estate Agency intern
  3. Taco Bell manager
  4. Rehabilitation nurse
  5. Lifeguard
I can't wait to see what they'll find tomorrow!