Why studying calculus is important- even if you don’t use it

Learning maths is supposed to be a pretty important thing to do. Counting is important, multiplying is important and percentages are important. But calculus…how important is that? Is it really necessary for us to learn about calculus, trigonometry, algebra and all those other things that most of us are never again going to use in their life? I mean, I’m a scientist and I haven’t used calculus since first year uni.

It's not like this guys! Image by kharied

It’s not like this guys! Image by kharied

But just because I don’t use it directly, doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying. Here’s why

My life as an actor

Calculus is a branch of mathematics that is all about mapping change. You get a series of mathematical equations that come together to tell you how things change over a period of time.

It’s used by loads of industries. Economists use it to predict maximum profits through calculation of future costs and revenue and it’s (supposed) to be used by scientists in population dynamics and particle physics.

But even with all these undoubtedly important uses, how many of us are really going to be motivated to study it in the hopes that one day, we might somehow, be roped into an industry where we just might have to perhaps pretend to know how to do some sort of semblance of calculus? Good point, why indeed?

When I was in high school, there was a large part of me that knew I was probably going to become either a mathematician or a scientist. But with all that, I still decided to take up Drama Studies. If you think about the rationale of studying something just for a direct benefit, my choice to take up drama was a pretty stupid one.

I was never going to become a professional actor and therefore, the years spent doing voice lessons, stage craft and getting in touch with my emotions was useless. But I don’t regret them. Through drama, learning the art of communication and understanding how to portray emotion has been integral to my life today.

Skills, no matter what sphere they are learnt in, are transferrable. When I was in drama class, I learnt how to do many things with my voice and body language. I learnt how to annunciate words correctly, project my voice over long distances, and make people believe what I wanted them to believe. Of course, I didn’t exactly perfect any of those things, but they set me on an interesting trajectory.

I didn’t know it back then, but what those lessons really taught me, was how to be an effective communicator. I learnt how to be confident in front of a large group of people, I learnt how to be a public speaker, I learnt how to be convincing and I learnt how to talk to different types of audiences. It even taught me how to be creative as a scientist, something that’s not often discussed.

The one thing people say about scientists is that they don’t know how to communicate like, good and stuff. Some scientists struggle even to talk to their own peers. Had I never studied drama in high school, I may never have developed the communication skills or the confidence that I have today.

Thinking by numbers

Turning our attention back to calculus, it’s the same thing. While many of us are never going to use calculus directly, we can still use the lessons learnt. One of the greatest lessons taught in any type of ‘higher’ mathematics is the ability to think about things numerically; to change words into numbers and to visualize how those numbers change over time.

A couple of years ago, I was playing a trivia board game at a friend’s house. One of the questions asked was ‘how much money does the average person spend on pet food each year?’ If you weren’t good at dealing with numbers, you would probably just shout out a ridiculously, unrationalised number that sounds high, just like the guy next to me did.

That guy answered with “I don’t know, $10,000”. I thought about this for a moment. If someone was spending $10,000 on pet food a year, that means they would be spending about $30 a day on food for their pet…what kind of pet owner loves their animal so much that they would spend $30 on food a day! That’s over $200 a week on pet food…honestly!

Clearly, the guy’s answer was ridiculous but because he didn’t have the numerical know-how to translate this question into something meaningful, he couldn’t deal with the question. (For the record, I answered with about $700, at an estimate of $2 per day. The real answer I think was between $300 and $500. But hey, at least I wasn’t that far off)

Okay, that was a bit of a facetious example, but there are many more real world examples that have much more profound effects. Think about people’s day-to-day budgets, where they have to take into account mortgage, petrol, car maintenance, food, electricity, water and many other expenses given a strict yearly salary.

All of these expenditures would fluctuate week to week by both external forces (like interest rates and petrol prices) and internal forces (how much you use the car, quality of food purchased, that planned vacation to Thailand). Knowing how to deal with numbers as they change over time would undoubtedly be a handy skill to have. This is why studying calculus is important.

Sure we aren’t going to determine the ‘limit as x approaches infinity’, but I’m sure as hell going to be able to give a decent estimate of how much fricking money I should set aside for dog food each week and I’m going to be able to budget my life in order to do all the things I want to do.

Sometimes when we talk about learning calculus, we talk about some of the amazing jobs you can get as a result. But if students already hate calculus, why in the world would they want to spend their life doing it. Perhaps though if we approached it with different real world outcomes, students might be more receptive. They might not use the phrase ‘what’s the point, never gunna use it’.

Skills are transferrable, time is not. Let’s teach our students calculus, it’s not that hard.

Over to you:

  • What’s your impression of calculus? Love it or loathe it?
  • Do you think studying maths is important to your life?
  • Have you ever studied something where you thought you were ‘never gunna use it’ but then did?

About Noby Leong

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