Why STEM Matters, Part 4: Mathematics

No adult, chatting at a cocktail party, would ever exclaim, “I’m completely illiterate!  I’m so terrible at reading written words!” unless it were actually some sort of cry for help.  So why is it common for otherwise intelligent people to routinely express that they “can’t do math” or that “math just never made sense to me” in similar circumstances and shrug it off as quirky or mildly amusing?  The inability of many adults to grasp much beyond arithmetic (and sometimes not even that) when it comes to mathematical literacy represents a catastrophic failure of our educational system.  This is a shame for many reasons, but mostly because thinking mathematically is so very vital to so many aspects of life.

Though the old adage of being able to balance your checkbook seems quaint in the age of banking apps, there are still plenty of mundane tasks that are much harder for people who, for one reason or another, never “got” math.  It’s hard to know if a 15% discount is better than off, or what your mortgage payments will be after putting 20% down on a 0,000 home, or even if you’ve been given the correct change at the supermarket without a basic understanding of math.  And of course there are countless frauds, scams, and deceptive advertisements that depend upon widespread mathematical ignorance to succeed.  Our collective failure to incorporate mathematics into our daily lives is a direct result of our never really understanding mathematics as children.

Mathematics is abstract, and it’s often taught by trying to constrain it to the physical world, which is easier for younger students to comprehend: I have four beans and I take away two, for example.  But the true power of math lies in its abstract nature.  Subtraction works the same way whether I have beans or crayons, atoms or planets.  All circles have the same ratio of circumference to diameter.  The sums of the squares of the legs of any right triangle are always equal to the square of the hypotenuse.  The area under a curve is always equal to the antiderivative of the function that defines that curve.  This universality is what enables mathematics to accomplish so much.

Human knowledge of mathematics has advanced so far that we are now capable of mathematically proving the existence of things we have never directly observed.  The recently discovered Higgs Boson, for example, was predicted by equations derived in the 1960s.  But it took nearly half a century before engineers could build the technology required for scientists to run the experiments to find the particle.  After the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and many years of painstaking experimentation, the Higgs Boson was observed for the first time in 2012. (The scary-looking equation at the top of this article, by the way, is the interaction of quarks and leptons with a Higgs field through Yukawa interaction. No, it won’t be on the test.)

stem bricks kid

In the end, the four STEM disciplines are interrelated and dependent upon one another.  A new technology, such as the telescope or microscope, can allow scientists to observe things they never could before.  Advances in science continue to push the limits of the technology that engineers can build. And as just mentioned, mathematical equations can predict the existence of particles we never imagined, which are only discovered by scientists after a century of technological progress allows engineers to construct the most powerful particle accelerator the world has ever seen.

The four disciplines are so vital to one another that it’s pointless to try and gain an understanding of one without also understanding the others. Yet many times people become overwhelmed by mathematics (like the monstrous equation at the top of this article) and decide that their difficulties in math prevent them from succeeding in STEM fields.  True, if you’re planning to become a scientist, then you will likely at some point need to solve Fourier series, time-dependent perturbations of wave functions, or some other mathematical problem that would make an average person’s head spin.  But to make it through STEM subjects in high school, you need little more than first-year algebra, which students as young as 6th grade can handle.

Math continues to mystify many people, but perhaps its inclusion in STEM programs will enable students to get a view of mathematics that leads to a greater appreciation of its usefulness, its power, and its ultimate necessity.  Hopefully math will become so ingrained in our children’s education that there will come a time when there simply aren’t any people left who could joke about their lack of math ability at cocktail parties.

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