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Why study math?

JOHN MCHUGH
Guest columnist

As an instructor of students in the area of mathematics, I am sometimes asked such questions as, “When am I ever going to use this?” or “Why do I have to study math?” I usually take the time to go over the list of reasons why I think a student must study mathematics. Since mathematics is a required subject for almost every course of study, it is all the more important for students to understand its importance in their education.
We live in a world which primarily operates on math. Developing good mathematical skills opens doors to productive futures. A lack of mathematical skills closes doors. I owe it to my students to prepare them well for life in the mathematical world in which they will live.
I use math to check that students are able to learn quickly and recall the information accurately. It is estimated that someone entering the workforce today may have between twelve and fifteen jobs over the course of his/her lifetime. Having the ability to learn quickly and recall information accurately is a necessary skill to develop as people change jobs throughout their lives. Learning math improves those skills. I use math problems in a classroom setting to determine how well-developed those skills are in each student, and to give the students an opportunity to practice those skills.
Employers in the modern economy are looking for three basic traits. They want their employees to be able to reason, work with technical equipment, and communicate well with other employees. Learning math helps to develop reasoning skills and proficiency in working with technical equipment. Using math can improve the ability to speak and write more clearly. Written communication, at least the type needed for work, tends to be extremely structured, and mathematical ability helps deal with that structure.
The act of performing mathematical calculations improves reasoning, problem-solving skills and the ability to self-regulate. These skills are associated with the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which continues to develop into the early thirties. Students may never need to use the quadratic equation in their adult lives, but the process of learning it boosts brainpower. By practicing how to solve mathematical problems, they optimize their ability to make complex decisions, and this can translate into an ability to earn more money and form stable relationships. Historically, math has been found to be the most efficient way to sharpen the mind for abstract thinking.
Modeling is the process by which students first determine whether a problem can be solved by using mathematics. Real problems almost never involve only one branch of mathematics. They are not math problems that come at the end of a chapter in an algebra textbook so that students know they are to use the method just learned. In the real world, problems are not labeled as algebraic, geometric, or statistical. Most of the time, they are a combination of these. Learning different topics in mathematics will add to the students’ abilities to become better problem solvers. In my math class, students learn math primarily by doing word problems. This gives the students a greater resiliency in abstract and analytical thinking, as compared to the more common method of formula memorization.
Learning math also provides students with a higher form of learning that will improve their critical thinking skills which are vital in today’s world. Students should learn to critically evaluate the world around them in order to make better and more informed decisions. This will benefit society overall. Critical thinking is a skill that can and should be practiced and math class is a great place to do this.
I am honest with my students and tell them that I only use about five percent of the material that I actually teach. However, I do use 100 percent of what I learned in math class on an almost daily basis. These include such skills as problem solving, attention to detail, logical thinking, abstract reasoning, critical thinking, good communication, ability to learn quickly and recall accurately, ability to follow directions, stick-to-itiveness, reasoning, and making better decisions, to name but a few. Math is the most efficient way that I have of finding out to what extent a student possesses these skills, and helping a student to improve these skills in a safe and friendly environment. Mathematics is one of the few ways available to students in all curriculums to build the kind of critical thinking skills that not only serve any intellectually mature adult in the workplace, but can enrich their inner lives as well.

Dr. John McHugh is Dean of Gaston College’s Lincoln Campus.

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