“I’ll never use this stuff in the real world.”
If math teachers had a dime for every time a student has uttered the above sentence, there wouldn’t be enough small tropical islands in the Pacific they could buy with all the cash.
Pierce College mathematics instructor Peter Kaslik is doing something to change students’ perceptions of modern math as some abstract mystery by bringing real-world topics into the classroom, themes not necessarily limited to engineering or science.
“When I teach Math 107 (Introduction to Contemporary Mathematics), I like to pick a theme for the quarter that can connect the various topics (of the course). Ideally, I’ll use something controversial in the news,” Kaslik said. “I think that’s good because during of the class we can show how math can be used to clarify real-world problems. This makes the material more meaningful for students and ultimately leads to the process of how to make good choices in the community.”
This winter, Kaslik, who holds degrees in math and environmental engineering, is unrolling a new topic for his students: sustainability. He said with the world facing a number of unprecedented problems, it only makes sense to have these pressing issues be a critical part of college students’ educations.
He said that the challenge tomorrow’s leaders will face — whether planning at the kitchen table or in the board room — is how should people create a situation to make the best possible future for everyone. Answering that question leads naturally to sustainability, Kaslik said, noting that the problem is much broader than looking at environmental issues alone. He cited housing, health care, economic stability, population and access to education as critical components to sustainability.
“A problem with most math books is they avoid controversy and try to be innocuous,” Kaslik said. “I try to make math exciting and have students realize the usefulness and importance of math in making informed decisions. I want to have the student connect with the math in a meaningful way, rather than just solve another abstract problem.”
Let them eat statistics
Kaslik, in his ninth year teaching at Pierce College, gave an example of a textbook chapter on fair division math that will be discussed in the class. Fair division comes into play when two or more people need to divide a certain thing between them. The book uses the example of several different-size groups of people trying to cut up a cake.
The cake is a classic example, Kaslik said. One person is the divider and one is the chooser. The divider tries to cut the cake evenly so he doesn’t end up with less no matter what piece the chooser picks. The more choosers there are, the harder cutting the cake and picking pieces becomes.
“… (T)he whole thing was about a cake. Cake? No thanks! I don’t even want cake!,” Kaslik exclaimed. “The whole chapter was just theory, something to learn for a test and then forget. But if you can tie that theory into community decision-making, then you have something valuable that will, hopefully, stick with students.”
This term in Kaslik’s classroom, the cake goes out the window. Far from a birthday party, students will get a chance to explore decision mechanics in a more meaningful way.
In one activity, each student becomes the mayor of a hypothetical city or town and will represent her community as the mayoral council tries to decide on the location of some undesirable, but necessary, county assets.
“I’ll provide a list of some ‘nimby’ projects that need to be sited in the wider community represented by the mayors. ‘Nimby’ is an acronym for ‘not in my backyard’ and can include such things as prisons, landfills, windmill farms, low-income housing, oil refineries or waste water treatment plants. Things communities don’t necessarily want close by, but from which they want the benefits,” Kaslik said.
He said discrete objects like a boat or a house — or a refinery — are much more difficult to divide within a group than a cake or a pile of cash: “How is value assigned? Will there be a sale of the object and division? Will there be a bidding process? Now the math gets more interesting. When you start talking about dividing up community responsibilities like determining the location of a landfill or prison, it’s very real.”
Other sustainability topics Kaslik will introduce this quarter include population growth and density, size and cost of housing versus income in various places, and sustainable community construction; the accompanying math concepts are exponential growth, statistics and voting mechanics, respectively.
Value for the student
It usually happens early in a student’s academic career: one either takes to math or doesn’t. Loves it or hates it. Sees beauty or boredom in it. Kaslik said he believes education should be as meaningful and relevant as it can be for students, and it’s his job to try to engage his students at Pierce College as fully as possible.
“As a teacher, I look at how many people struggle with math, not just at Pierce College, but nationwide,” he said. “Is it necessary that they struggle? The problem I’m working on is how to devise a curriculum so students aren’t traumatized by math, so they can connect to real things.”
One of the major reasons Kaslik’s chosen to augment the standard lessons is the need to incorporate current knowledge and topics into classes. He said it doesn’t make sense to limit learning to problems students can’t connect to anything in their lives.
“We’re going to need competent decision-makers in this country, and having nontrivial information allows those students to begin to be those decision-makers,” Kaslik said. “If we can engage students, there’s a good chance that some of the critical thinking skills they learn will be remembered, even if the specific math skills may eventually be forgotten. I’d hate to have a math class be just one more hoop students have to jump through on the way to getting a diploma.”
His hope is that if math can be intimately related to real-world problems, the tools students receive will be useful in doing better, more in-depth work in their other classes, and throughout their lives, regardless of where that lives may lead.
“What you typically have from good business leaders is an understanding of the present business environment and the ability to use relevant data to anticipate the future and make sound decisions,” Kaslik said. “It’s the same in a family — decisions are made on budgeting, housing, college funding, all kinds of things. Like a good family or business, society should not ignore critical evidence it needs to made sound decisions. We hope students will be able to competently evaluate evidence and thereby be in a better position to make prudent choices.”
Peter Kaslik can be reached at (253) 964-6635 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Dave Hassler, Pierce College communications specialist, can be reached at (253) 864-3160 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.