Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What Do Mathematicians Do?

I've had this inkling of an idea for a while now, but I never seem to have the time or umph to put it into action, and here comes a student after school today who reminds me. She wanted to know what you could do with a math degree and what sorts of jobs there were and what did the people actually do all day and did they interact with others or did they just sit and do math at a desk for hours and hours.

My idea was to interview different people who had jobs heavy with math duties and make posters to hang up either in my room or around the hallways. The posters would have a picture of the person, their job title, their degree, and various specifics about their job and how they got it and such. That's just the bare bones of the idea.

This student really wanted to know because she was testing out different versions of her future to see what would fit. After we talked for a bit, she said that maybe the students should do this for credit (or extra credit). Hmmmmm, I'd have to come up with the specifics and such, but it just may work .... or at least be worth trying.


  1. I used a lot of logic in my former job. It was a class I loved in college. Being 40, I grew up learning BASIC, using IF-THEN statements. I'm told that today's kids don't program and that they don't learn AND OR functions.

    I worked on airplane cockpit displays. The logic came from statements like: IF Engine is ON AND Fuel is greater than 100 THEN engine symbol is displayed as RED.

    SO I had to test the cases and verify the proper behaviors occurred. What happens when Fuel is less than, equal to, or greater than 100? Is there rounding? (We had hysteresis. Ooh, big word) What if Fuel is 150 but the Engine is OFF?

    Tables and logic saved the day. Especially when we need to to write only as many tests as were necessary. We had neither time nor money to test every case; which ones could we prune?

    In my other task, I used Vectors to map out the path the light beam took to draw the images on the screen.

  2. Excellent example. How would you feel about being a "poster child"? I'm going to broach the subject with my students this week, and maybe we'll get a set of questions to ask (via e-mail) of our interviewees.

    Ms. Cookie

  3. Anonymous7:41 AM

    One poster that I have in my room that I know my kids really like to look at - and as a not horribly long ago HS grad I must admit I liked in HS - is titled "When are we ever going to use this?" It's basically a big grid with jobs along the top and math skills down the side. When you need a skill for a certian job, there's a dot in the corresponding box. It might be a start--if you come up with some cool posters, I personally would love to know. I'm always looking for non-cheesey math stuff to hang up in my room!

  4. It wouldn't hurt to look for people whose jobs don't seem to involve much math, but actually do. For a wild example, Phil Jackson, famed coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers commented on several occasions about how logic and systems analysis were part of what he does. I doubt you could get him to answer an email, but you get the idea.

  5. Thanks for the creative ideas :).

    Ms. Cookie

  6. Not only do I think that is a great question, and an fun solution to answer the question, but it is a problem that I have been grappling with all year, though in a slightly different perspective.

    In my non-honors precalc class, after a few years, I have come to the conclusion that they aren't there to understand trig identities in the long haul, but rather to learn it for the test. Since that was not an ideal teaching goal for me, I have begun to focus on teaching them "what it is that mathematicians do" when they are thinking, to give them skills in the long haul. While even now the idea is kind of nebulous, I have done a few things that have been enlightening.

    I started by having them draw a picture of a mathematician. Some drew Einstein-like figures, a few drew wizards, one drew his mother (a statistician), NONE drew themselves, and one drew a female. Many of them included tools like a TI, a chalkboard, a pencil, a slide rule (!) or graph paper. Since then, at the end of each unit, I have them add to their picture, by adding what skills / new tools they have learned. They continue to be abstract (i.e. no one has written down the law of cosines), but rather, things like "keep going even when it looks wrong," or a pair of special math glasses because "conic sections are everywhere...math is everywhere, just look for it."

    It has been an interesting journey, and one that I wish I had more definitive answers too, so that I could help these math-phobes appreciate that what mathematicians do is what they very well might do when they leave the bubble of high school. Thanks for the great idea to keep pushing me in this project.

  7. "A mathematician is a machine for converting coffee into theorems."

    -- Paul Erdos

    People will even pay you to just do math if you're good enough.

  8. Anonymous10:51 PM

    A lot of the $$ value of math is wrapped up with being the X who can do math.

    Managers don't really need to know math, since there is always someone around who can do it for them, but if you are the one manager who can...


    and so on. I've been repeating it long enough that I think I might really believe it. Just might be true. Certainly doesn't make for a good poster though.

  9. Anonymous11:16 PM

    I think it is a great idea to give students the opportunity to look into professions in mathematics. I would try to make it a regular assignment as it would make the students look into the possible careers that they could possibly pursue. This way all of the students will see the opportunities available with a math degree because if the assignment were extra credit, some students will not look at it twice. The idea would be well worth trying out. An idea for the assignment could be for the students to make a list of professions that they could find on the internet or get from the library. You could give students extra credit if they choose to write a paper about the career that most interests them. I would make the paper extra credit because some of the students are not interested enough in careers in mathematics to write a paper. It would be more hurtful than helpful to make the students write a paper about something that bores them to death.

  10. Hey hummelk! I'm looking for that very poster for my classroom! Do you remember where you got it?

  11. Anonymous11:57 PM

    I did a project similar to the one that you discuss here but as an introduction we watched a film with Jaime Escalante titled, "Math, Who Needs It??". The students really got into it. It was great!

  12. Anonymous9:34 PM

    You can get a similar poster at this site:


    It is not the same poster that I have in my room, I think I got it from Dale Seymor, but I didn't find it on their site, though they have been bought out by Pearson Prentice Hall.