Saturday, February 04, 2006

WHEN Are We Ever Gonna Have To Use This?

I hear that question frequently in math. It grows old. Do they ask the same question in English class when studying the poetry of Emily Dickenson? (Related post here)

Anyway, I wrote previously about finding the WWII pictures of my grandmother in uniform. I've been doing some non-scholarly research about the work she did in the British Army and came across a site dedicated to the women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, to which nana belonged. And what do I find there? This tidbit of information about women in anti-aircraft artillery units, of which nana was a member:
Another instrument that was used by A.T.S was the kinetheodolite. This was only used at practice camps but this was based on the theories of cinema and theodolites combined. The operators would film mixed battery detachments firing at drones on the practice camps. The films were taken back in the evening to the camp headquarters and the operators would use the measurements taken, together with the film to work out how close to target each team was firing. This enabled teams to adjust their procedures in order to become more accurate. The work of the kinetheodolite operators was very mathematical and only those who were very good in this subject were able to cope with the calculations that had to be made each day. (emphasis mine--Darren)
So when are you ever gonna have to use this? Maybe when you're trying to defend your country from attack by a ruthless enemy!

Bottom line is, I don't know when you're "ever gonna have to use this stuff". But isn't it good knowledge to have, just in case? And why cut yourself off from fields you don't even know about yet? I'll bet the women in school in 1930s Britain never thought they'd be using math to help shoot down Nazi aircraft.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of women, mathematics, and defending the nation, see this (course, you'd have to tell your students who Hedy Lamarr was).

Darren said...

And let's not forget Admiral Grace Hopper.

David Foster said...

ATS women, known as "the ack-ack girls," also served with deployed anti-aircraft batteries. These were generally organized with the women operating the tracking and computing instruments, and the men loading and firing the actual guns.

I have a post about Violette Szabo, who served as an ack-ack girl and later became a secret agent with Special Operations Executive here.

Darren said...

My grandmother served in such an anti-aircraft unit. She would radio IFFs to incoming aircraft; if the response wasn't correct, she'd give the information to the predictor, who would tell the guns where to fire.

Thanks for the information about Violette Szabo. I'd never heard of her.

Unknown said...

For someone a little closer to our time and the time of our kids, check out Danica McKellar (who played Winnie on The Wonder Years and had a recurring role in The West Wing). McKellar is also a Mathematics major and has a proof named after her.

Her website is and then click the link on the left for Mathematics.

Darren said...

And she's a hottie, too!

Anonymous said...

Well, nice try. But the trouble is, cite any example of what they could do with the knowledge, and they'll say well I don't want to do *that* anyway, no matter what it is. Because once they start getting behind on something like math, they have to justify their position to themselves, somehow.

How I hated that question, and I'm not even a teacher. But some gal in my freshman year in JC spouted it about English 101 for heavens' sake. I never felt that way about any subject. In the end I still bombed out, but not because I thought the work was useless, only that I was. I didn't get it together for math until my 30s.

Darren said...

Cassandra, unlike your Greek mythology namesake, you speak the truth--and I believe you.

Anonymous said...

Well I feel like Chicken Little sometimes.

Darren are they teaching that TERC Investigations stuff in your district? If so how is it working out? What do you think of it?

Darren said...

Oh no! TERC is fuzzy. California doesn't adopt fuzzy texts given our current standards.

Henry Cate said...

This was my favorite story about reasons for learning math:


From: (Tom Duff)

Taylor Series - a matter of life or death

Mathematics can even be a matter of life or death. During the Russian revolution, the mathematical physicist Igor Tamm was seized by anti-Communist vigilantes at a village near Odessa where he had gone to barter for food. They suspected he was an anti-Ukrainian communist agitator and dragged him off to their leader. Asked what he did for a living he said that he was a mathematician. The skeptical gang-leader began to finger the bullets and grenades slung around his neck. "All right", he said, "calculate the error when the Taylor series approximation of a function is truncated after n terms. Do this and you will go free; fail and you will be shot". Tamm slowly calculated the answer in the dust with his quivering finger. When he had finished the bandit cast his eye over the answer and waved him on his way.

Tamm won the 1958 Nobel prize for Physics but he never did discover the identity of the unusual bandit leader. But he found a sure way to concentrate his students' minds on the practical importance of Mathematics!


In doing a little search around the internet I found that this may be from "The Penguin Book of Curious & Interesting Mathematics" by David Wells

Darren said...

Henry Cate, that's a *fantastic* story!

Anonymous said...

Darren - Yes I've been googling like crazy since my last post and see Cal has the best standards, and my state, Montana, just about the worst for science AND math!

So, I'm a conservative Republican and thinking about running for the legislature. According to NAEP our kids are still "above average." But then I heard NAEP tests were pretty much written by the fuzzy math-progressivists at NCTM.

HOW do I find out how our students' skills really stack up? This could be a great issue to run on, and I may have an effect on the discussion even if I lose.

Darren said...

They might very well be written by the fuzzies, but as long as the comparison is apples to apples (all states give the NAEP) it should be ok.

You might also check comparison scores for whatever other tests your state gives, like the ITBS or other such ones. Or, take your state's standards and compare them side by side with standards from California (modeled on Singapore's, so the guy who wrote them told me). If yours are fuzzy, ask: How exactly do we measure this? What exactly does this mean? Could it mean different things to different people?

An outside organization has given letter grades to state standards in different areas. I'll see if I can find that information--it might be helpful to you.

Anonymous said...

Sheesh, Blogspot ate my comment! Hope I don't double-post.

It's the Fordham Foundation that rates standards, and we got a D in math and an F in science.

I'll check out the various test results. Much of the NCLB report card results in actual academics seems mysteriously unavailable at my state's OPI site.