So, the Atlantic posted this article about how poor America’s math scores are. And that our scores are going down. And while that’s super important… it’s also just a number. The more interesting question is how to fix that number. And the answer is not to cut arts funding!!
Thankfully the Atlantic also published an article on Monday about rewarding effort instead of achievement in a math class. This article is lovely. I think my undergraduate college did an excellent job of this. The exams were hard and lots of partial credit was given. If you understood the concepts and could apply them to new, hard problems then you were rewarded with at least a C. In opposition, my current university holds accuracy and computation in high regard. In a engineering course a student may be expected to complete 6 pages of computations (which look exactly like the homework and contain no critical thinking) in less than an hour for an exam. If the student only makes 3 minor computational errors, then they receive a B on the exam. I think this is an example of rewarding achievement over effort. My current university is often rewarding brute force and calculator accuracy over critical thinking and conceptual understanding. Why can’t we reward students for effort?
This semester I have had the privilege to teach the students who don’t like math. And I do consider it a privilege. I get to teach the students who are communications, arts, and theater majors. They are future journalists, performers, authors, advertising executives and parents (among many other things!). I’m so grateful to have the chance to teach these students who are not “math people” that they can understand mathematics. It’s not magic. It’s just math.
Why are we so concerned with the young genius mathematician who never struggles? This is an ideal that only a few can achieve. Most of us mathematicians toil and struggle and fight for each mathematical result. We are not gods, nor are we special. We may think differently from the “arts” people, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dance. And it doesn’t mean that they can’t do mathematics.
In the US, the challenge is to get your daily nutritional requirements without exceeding the caloric budget. So the more pressing calculation is something like calcium or vitamin B or protein or fiber per calorie.
A reader wrote to me to bring up the idea that cost/calorie is not the only thing worth optimizing. So I did some (very dull) data entry from the Progresso website until I got sick of it. And then I made some charts! The first thing I did was make a chart of fiber per calorie as suggested by my reader:
Not all the soup labels show up, but you can see that the “High Fiber” soups actually have more fiber. And of course beans win the fiber/calorie battle. But I was surprised about which soups had almost no fiber in them. Which made me wonder about other things as well…
Which made me rethink the way we look at vegetable classic “hearty” tomato as it has very little fiber, low calcium and lots of sugar. I propose the following alteration to the soup label to reflect this fact:
Actually I noticed a trend in tomato soup. Tomato soup has a LOT of sugar in it! It doesn’t matter if it’s hearty healthy, classic or hearty; tomato soup contains lots of sugar! Darn those fruit based soups!
Eating right can be hard. And expensive. I constantly find myself calculating how many calories per dollar I’m getting. Sometimes I optimize health over money, but I only have finite money- so compromises must be made without losing too much of the enjoyment of eating bad-for-you foods. Yes, I could buy dried beans and spend my life cooking. But I’m not a great cook so I tend to buy a fair amount of premade lunch food.
Luckily, many brands are working to provide you with healthier options. Like baked Cheetos– eww. There’s always a trade off between calories and cost– and flavor. The most likely candidate for best calorie to dollar ratio is the McDonalds McDouble (see this lovely article at The Blaze about it.) The cost to calorie ratio is a real problem. A salad costs more than a burger and you get less calories. (Unless it’s covered in cheese- but that’s a different problem!)
But the brand whose continually working to find lower calories versions of its food that bothers me the most is Progresso. Progresso has like 40 soups under 100 calories. SOUP IS ALREADY LOW CALORIE! Did you really need to develop a more watered-down version of Chicken Noodle soup so that instead of paying $3 for 100 calories, I can pay $3 for 70 calories?! So instead of getting 0.3 calories per penny, I’m getting 0.2 calories per penny. WHY WAS THAT NECESSARY? Even the Chicken Corn Chowder went from a raging 200 calories to supposedly more waist-line manageable 100 calories. Thus, doubling the cost of a calorie while simultaneously halving the flavor of the soup.
So, do yourself a favor, just buy the soup that tastes good. You won’t regret it.
There are so many opportunities to appreciate mathematics when you travel. I recently spent three weeks in Europe. I was constantly grateful for Arabic numerals- Thank goodness we all use the same number system! Another one of my favorite examples of mathematics are these advertisements I’ve seen for travelers insurance in various airports. They have a projector and a motion detector. When no one is walking in front of them, they look like the banner above.
But when you stand in front of the projector and wave your arms around, the little umbrellas go nuts. They fly away from your hands and slowly settle back to their self-similar umbrella shape.
Linear Algebra mainly.
I could watch people do this for hours. Well, in reality, I watch people do this for about five minutes until I feel super creepy and go sit at my gate and read a book!
Have you heard of Vi Hart? She is a wonderful mathematician who makes videos and sculptures and other wonderful things! Enjoy this video sample from her vast video library. It’s about Fibonacci Spirals.