Math is a tricky subject. Not only is it a complex and tedious process, but it often feels pointless because day to day life has little use for derivatives, functions or the PEMDAS system. That’s why when I saw the class “Math in Everyday Life” listed as a winter course I got excited. Not only would it fill a common core requirement, but it might finally be an opportunity to actually gain something useful from a subject that has long tormented me. Sadly, this was not the case.
The memory that sticks with me most from that class was sitting at my desk and staring at the equation I was supposed to use to figure out the seismic impact of an earthquake. Not only is that question not an activity that most people experience in everyday life, but it is nearly useless because when an earthquake does happen the news reports how dangerous it is and gives us the number on the Richter Scale. I lamented not being able to learn more about how to budget or plan car payments (though both were covered briefly) and decided to move on.
I was ambivalent towards my professor. He was thorough, but I also felt he didn’t seem to enjoy teaching that particular class. It made me wonder if other students had similar experiences, and whether or not the class was set up poorly, or I just personally didn’t gel with the instructor.
After interviewing a number of students, I found a common theme. Those who took the class with a teacher that connected to their own lives, came away feeling enlightened. And those, like myself, who had a professor that did not, or was not able to engage with the material, came away feeling disappointed and without applicable knowledge. “I mean, I didn’t really learn anything. So, I can’t then apply it if I didn’t learn,” said Alondra Vargas, a music major and junior. “He was really big into riddles and making those into math problems. And he’d take 30 minutes trying to explain a riddle to us and it was just like, why?”
Another music major, Ezequiel Quinones, a senior, had a vastly different experience, and discussed his professor’s ability to connect topics such as credit cards and mortgages to her own life, and make it seem important to the students. “She was just like ‘these are the issues I had. These are the issues you guys need to avoid,’” said Quinones. The class appealed to Quinones, but mainly because the teacher was so committed to the material. She was able to make it personal, and that in turn helped motivate the students.
Scott Gentile, a full-time lecturer in the Mathematics and Statistics department as well as the course coordinator for “Math in Everyday Life” explained that he tries to run the class by giving teachers a syllabus that must be covered at a basic level. “However,” he said, “I also encourage instructors to use whatever teaching style they are most comfortable with and give them some freedom to focus on topics of personal interest or expertise, since this knowledge and enthusiasm comes through in their teaching and makes for a richer course experience for both them and their students.” Sometimes this theory works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The class “Math in Everyday Life” illustrates the double-edged sword of allowing teachers to personalize their classes. On one hand, a great teacher takes control of the syllabus and makes the class their own. On the other, it risks a disconnect between professor and student. Standardization of classes is less risk, but also less reward. Knowing there is a method to the practice is comforting, and knowing that other students have benefited greatly from the class that I felt didn’t serve me lessens the sting.