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Does math come in handy in real life?Geostock/Getty Images

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Susie Brown, Program Development Manager, Youth & Volunteer Experience, Let’s Talk Science

What do you remember about learning math as a child? Do any specific experiences stand out for you? Personally, I have some fond memories of learning math. I love having a problem in front of me, and tackling the challenge to solve it (and a calming added bonus was that, generally, there was a solution). However - as many have asked before me, and many will ask in the future - I also recall wondering “Will I ever really use this in my adult life?”

In celebration of Science Literacy Week’s theme of M is for Mathematics, let’s answer this ever-looming question.

On the surface, it may seem like the answer is no. I rarely find myself excitedly pulling out my knowledge on Pythagorean Theorem, finding the surface area of a square-based pyramid, or creating a project to find the average height of my coworkers. Most careers, I am relieved to say, aren’t asking these sorts of questions on a regular basis.

In spite of that, I am still thankful for my time spent in math class. The value that comes from learning these topics can have a far-reaching impact on your life.

Thinking outside the triangle


Pythagorean theorem seems so simple. Use this quick formula to find the missing length of a right-angled triangle. But where it gets exciting is when you start creating imaginary triangles.

This short mathematical sentence (or formula) can be used to measure very high heights or long distances by creating imaginary triangles with structures around them as the corners. Think of how this would be valuable for land surveyors and sailors! Learn more about Pythagorean theorem and real-life applications. This also illustrates how you can bring in imagination and creativity to math. The practice of taking something you have learned and applying it into a new situation helps to build creativity, flexibility, and critical thinking. Those are three things that I can easily say I do use every day – at home chasing my two toddlers and on the job.

Let’s Break it Down

Can you find the surface area of a square-based pyramid? Learning to look at a pyramid, visualize it as a set of four triangles and a square in order to add up the area of each piece is an example of breaking down a bigger problem into a series of smaller, easier to solve problems. Have you had any dilemmas in life that seem too big to handle? Acing that test, buying a car, solving climate change? Each of these big problems require a series of smaller solutions that add up to your goal.

This process of creating algorithms (a list of instructions to solve a problem) is used widely in computer programming. In fact, algorithms help determine what posts you see on social media, and guide the possibilities and the limitations of artificial-intelligence. Learn more about how climatologist use math to study climate change.

Not so Average

A common math class activity to explore averages is to tally your classmates on a rather mundane topic: height, shoe size, or number of siblings. Understanding the process of gathering your class, collecting information, and calculating the average - this sets the basis for understanding health statistics, reports on the average household income, and the numerous ways data can be misinterpreted and misrepresented.

Was there one student who had hit their growth spurt early - making your class’s average height all of a sudden increase half a foot? What if your school decided to use that average height to make decisions about what chairs to buy, how high to hang light fixtures, or what type of playground equipment was appropriate? The information used wasn’t incorrect, but is ‘average height’ the best set of information to use to make these decisions? Should we have measured more classes? Should we have also considered the range of student heights and not only the average height? These improbable scenarios prepare kids to think critically about numbers and understand them in other - more realistic - circumstances.

There are still areas where we could be preparing students more - are they delving deeply enough into understanding how statistics can tell the story you want and not always a ‘hard fact’? The rise of misinformation and disinformation online can have serious outcomes. If kids are learning to critically analyze where data comes from and how it is gathered they can start to spot and slow the spread of misinformation. Are they learning enough financial math to save for a car, a house, and retirement? Are we preparing them enough for the world of ‘big data and coding’? The world is changing rapidly, but having the foundations to think critically and analytically about problems, and data, is key and math sets that foundation for success.