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From Algebra To Art: Math's Many Applications

Mar 28, 2008
It's a question every math teacher hears. Most dread it. Some - the most creative - practically look forward to it. But love it or hate it, no one teaches math for long before a student asks: "How is this gonna help me in the real world?" Quite a bit, in fact. By reading up on the many careers for which the study of mathematics is the best preparation, every teacher can learn to handle this question so as to build, not break, student confidence and attentiveness.

First of all, and most obviously, a student who understands math is a student with the kind of problem-solving skills needed in such always-well-paying areas as engineering, accounting, and the worlds of computers, science and technology.

While a degree in computer science is the traditional preparation for careers in computer software or hardware, more and more students are finding that a double major - in mathematics combined with computer science - gives them a sharper competitive edge in job searches. Software companies look for the creative approach to solving problems that students of math can deliver. As software technician Sara Ford has written, "Mathematics builds the foundation for learning how to problem solve. A chemical engineer is a chemical engineer, a biologist is a biologist, but a mathematician can learn how to become either one."

Math opens doors to a far wider set of occupations than merely those of the science-and-technology world - and these other opportunities are comparatively lucrative, too. Lawyers, for example, have found that training in math strengthens the all-important reasoning skills that win court cases. Law partner Mitchell Stabbe writes of the way in which the two disciplines complement each other: "While in law school and, now, in practicing law, I still find myself thinking and reasoning linearly, as I would in solving a math problem. Step A leads to Step B which leads to Step C and so forth.

In law, you start with a basic legal principle or proposition, apply the principle to the facts at hand and reach a conclusion. f(x) = y, so to speak."

Some business consultants, as well, begin their lives as math majors - and the all-important creative problem-solving skills that make or break advanced math students lead them to success in this field. To solve a difficult marketing problem, forecast likely long-range trends in consumer habits, or simply crunch large piles of numbers together, you need exactly the habits math students develop.

Price Waterhouse consultant Carla Martin tells the story of how her math background enabled her to succeed in the consulting department of one of the most powerful companies in finance: "For example, a company was interested in offering a new type of service to its customers. However, before doing so, they needed a way to figure out if this new service would be profitable and determine if the company would gain a large customer base by offering such a service."

"My first step was to determine the characteristics of potential customers. From that point, I developed mathematical formulas to select a representative sample of US residents whom we could survey to determine their interest in this new service to be offered. I helped design an unbiased questionnaire and supervised the survey administration. After we obtained the data, I developed computer programs and formulas to analyze the data. I then wrote a report containing our conclusions and presented it to our client."

Perhaps most intriguingly, a math background helps those innovators who are working in the places where science and the arts converge. After all, some of today's most enduring popular art was brought to you, in part, by math and science wonks - think of the special-effects technicians who made the Death Star explode and Middle-Earth glisten, the gamers who gave us all a Second Life, or the computer junkies who made Pixar a household name. (Even some great twentieth-century writers - Stanislaw Lem comes to mind - were well-trained in mathematics.)

Benjamin Weiss, writing for the Mathematical Association of America (the source of most of the essays quoted in this article), recalls the way his early love of both video games and applied math led him to his current career in computer imaging: "Linear algebra provided tools to flip and rotate graphics in three-dimensional perspective, the basis for countless computer games.

Physics and optics opened the door to use the computer as a virtual camera, taking color snapshots of imaginary landscapes and panoramas." Computer science and engineering; law and business; art and entertainment. Math relates to everything. Tell your students.
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