The Meaning of Math

It has been said that math is the language of the universe. Fluency in that language helps us unlock its mysteries. But for many students, there is little reason to learn math. They don't see the correlation between what they learn in math class and their day-to-day life.

And they are right.

In order for this pilot to work, we had to find a purpose for the math that the students were learning – not a simple challenge.

I started asking the teachers and education professionals that I knew how, as the students were learning trigonometry, they might apply those math skills to solve real-world problems. I found many blank responses. So I kept asking, my concern increasing as I went along.

Finally, I reached out to an education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education. "Oh," he told me, "you need trig for trusses. By the way," he continued, "Dayton has a truss manufacturer just a few miles away."

I had no idea what a truss was, but I took his word for it. We had a lead.

I then talked to Deb about our plan and asked for her help. Could she go out to this truss manufacturer to introduce me and our project? The following day, she knocked on their door and set up an appointment for me to meet them.

The following week, I went out to the company. Scattered around their yard were, what I now recognized, trusses that are used for supporting the structure of roofs.

I sat down with their general manager and explained that we were going to do a three-week sprint with trig students and needed a problem for them to solve that involved the application of their newly acquired math skills.

He was hesitant. He knew little about schools, didn’t know what problems students might be able to solve, and hadn’t used trig for many years because computer programs now did all of the math for him.

I sighed. I jumped back in and explained that this was an experiment. We had no idea how it might turn out, but it was really important to find a reason for their math learning. Finally, he agreed to come to a meeting with Michelle and me to find a problem for the students to solve that required their trig.

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