- Martin Brown, High School Vice Principal
Many students ask what is the point of learning the types of math that is taught at the high school level. In fact, it’s often the subject of many jokes of the type “how often do I use the Pythagorean Theorem in the real world?”. For many people, these questions are understandable and relatable. However, the goal of high school courses is often to expand a student’s horizons and open their eyes to the possible pathways after graduation. In the case of Mathematics, the primary goal is to create functional members of society who can successfully navigate the calculations that are required on a daily basis and are not job-specific. The secondary goal is to prepare students for Calculus and what lies beyond. This course is the pinnacle of the high school mathematics curriculum and the reason why students learn such topics as trigonometry, functions, and transformations. Calculus opens the door to many exciting areas after high school.
Looking at the Map of Mathematics graphic, there are four main areas of study: History (Origins) Foundations, Pure Mathematics, and Applied Mathematics. Studying a Mathematics degree will open up the doors to the first three, while Calculus will aid in the last. If one wants to have a career in the Sciences (Physics, Biology, Chemistry, or Geology), Engineering, Finance, Computer Science or Actuarial Sciences, they would hard-pressed to go very far without a knowledge of Calculus.
These areas of study are probably the ones that are expected to use a large amount of Mathematics, but there are other areas that may be surprising to know how much they involve Mathematics, and Calculus in particular. For example, in Music, one can analyze the equations representing the harmonic motion of the plucked string of a guitar, the beaten skin of a drum, or the pressure wave in a flute or oboe. The solutions to these equations will define the note played and the harmonics that accompany it. Finding the solutions requires Calculus.
In Urban Planning, the connections between cities, the need for tunnels or overpasses, or the length of a bus route with the fewest stops can all be determined through Graph Theory. Any connections can be drawn using Graph Theory: the linking of web sites, how words are related to each other, efficient circuit design, airports served by various airlines, and more. Part of the analysis of these graphs is through Calculus.
There are many other examples of where the use of Mathematics can be found in the real world. Giving our students the knowledge and problem-solving skills to be able to move on to further areas of study that will undoubtedly use Mathematics is imperative. So, even if it’s hard to see the practical use while a student is in high school, taking these courses, and then Calculus keeps the door open to a multitude of career opportunities.