My youngest daughter asked me this morning on our drive to school why students were required to take so much math during High School.

In the track that she is in, she’ll be taking a year of pre-calculus and a year of calculus to end her High School experience.

Let me talk about my feelings of math for a moment. In case you didn’t know… I **LOVE** math. I took AP Calculus my senior year of High School and I passed the BC AP test (I had a choice between the less difficult AB test and the more advanced BC test). I went on to study even more advanced math in college, even though it was not required. At every step of my educational career, I have taken and learned and loved math.

As a junior in High School, I took trigonometry (in my school, sophomores took pre-calc, juniors too trigonometry, and seniors took calculus). I loved it… but I recognized that I didn’t fully understand it. So, I set a challenge for myself over the summer. I had heard of an (at the time) unproven mathematical concept that said that it was impossible to trisect an angle. It’s very easy (and has been known for thousands of years) that you can take an angle and divide it into two equal angles, but it was thought to be impossible to trisect it (divide it into three equal angles). So, over the summer, I set out to trisect an angle. I studied all of the proofs of all of the known trigonometric formulas and then tried to extend them in a way that would allow me to trisect an angle. I went through my entire book trying to find a method… and of course I failed completely. But in so doing, I REALLY learned those trigonometric properties. It was no surprise to me that I failed. I was pretty sure it was impossible going in to that project, and it was no shock at all when I learned not too many years later that it had been proven that trisecting the angle was impossible, but trying and failing that summer is one of the high points of my math experience.

In my senior year in High School, I did take calculus, and loved it, but the most important class I took was AP Chemistry, and there I learned dimensional analysis (which I covered in a previous post), and have used that repeatedly to help me understand real-life mathematical situations ever since.

I solve math problems for fun, and for real life. I used my trigonometry to design a circular roofing system that a friend and I used to build a shed… and then expanded on to build the circular roof on the addition we built for my home.

I’ll say again: I LOVE math. If I were to return to college right now to take classes for my edification, I’d concentrate on math and history.

So, what are my feelings about math in High School? I’m annoyed! I cannot understand why they are spending so much time teaching a subject to students that the vast majority of them will have no use for!

Unless a student is going into a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, math), calculus is almost completely useless. A quick google search says that between 16-18% of college students major in a STEM field. This set of students would benefit from taking calculus in High School. The remaining 82-84% of students will NOT! So why are we pushing them to take it? Why are we even suggesting that they should take it?

My oldest daughter was struggling greatly with math in High School. Advanced algebra was very hard for her and she was doing poorly. Going in to her junior year, she was still on track to take the pre-calc and calc classes and her counselor was advising her to continue. I advocated very strongly for her to NOT go that route, and instead take statistics and advanced statistics. Her counselor didn’t really approve of this decision, but my daughter listened to my advice; took statistics; understood it; enjoyed it; and is now taking advanced statistics, and I couldn’t be happier. Somewhere along the way, we got into this stupid mindset that the calc path was “real” math, and statistics was the dummy track if you couldn’t handle the “real” path. What an incredibly naive way to look at things. Statistics is incredibly useful math with many real world applications… applications that are useful to non-STEM people! Statistics is useful for understanding when politicians are lying to us; for understanding how dangerous an activity really is; for understanding how effective a medicine will be; for understanding the pros and cons are between two different choices. Statistics help us to understand how society is behaving.

I do believe that everyone should take up to algebra, but then, I would like to see a branching of math where people can take a track that will actually be useful to them. Most importantly, the different branches should NOT be considered inferior and superior tracks. Each track will address a different set of real-life needs for a different population.

For people who are considering a STEM career, they absolutely should stick with the calculus track. It will be the most useful track for them. For others, take a statistics class as one of your math classes (and you may well benefit from two years of statistics depending on your career path). I would like to see dimensional analysis taught as a math class with real-life applications covering many different types of fields because I have seen how incredibly powerful and practical it is. I’d also like to see an applied algebra class available which was basically a repeat of the current algebra class but where 100% of the problems were story problems. Every time students encounter the dreaded “story problems”, they groan, but these are the problems that teach you how this crazy math stuff actually applies in real life! An applied algebra class (as opposed to the current algebra class which is predominantly theoretical with only small forays into the application) would be incredibly useful. Also, make sure that an economics class (with emphasis on things like understanding loans, investments, and other aspects of personal finances) is included as an alternative that meets math requirements. Adding just these alternatives to the traditional calc track would turn math into something that people will actually use and benefit from!

So, for as much as I personally love math, I have to say: we are teaching it wrong. However, it would really not be too difficult to fix it. The main thing is to remove calculus from the pedestal it is on and recognize that other math classes are just as important (and far more useful).