Mathematics Project

Q&A: When Am I Going to Use This Math in Real Life?

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 31, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of Table top view of workstation from above including: Laptop, statistics reports, calculator, smartphone, coffee, notepad, pens on a grid table.
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Statistics and geometry are key skills in a variety of careers that students may not immediately associate with mathematics.

Education Week spoke with an animator, a health researcher, and a data journalist about how they use math in their daily work and how schools can better prepare and engage students for nontraditional math careers.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Animation

Tony DeRose

Tony DeRose
PIXAR computer animator, retired
Co-founder, X in a Box online education

What role does geometry play in animation?

The modern computer-animation tools that animators and artists use require visual skills, but to build those tools is very technical. You have to have an intimate understanding of geometry and linear algebra. Writing computer-graphics programs from scratch really requires you to understand coordinate systems and rotation. For anybody that’s interested in writing video games or doing computer art, geometry and telemetry [collecting and measuring data from remote sources or instruments] are the natural tools you need to create those kinds of projects.

Animated illustration showing a wire frame and basic elements of animation and video games.

How did your K-12 education prepare you for the math you use in your job?

My science teacher in 7th grade was really remarkable; he was giving me enrichment material in trigonometry, geometry, in 7th grade. He really went above and beyond. I first got exposed to computer science when I went to community college just after high school, back in the mid-’70s. I immediately fell in love with computer science and shortly thereafter fell in love with what were then extremely rudimentary computer graphics.

How would you improve K-12 instruction in this math?

I think generally, students graduating don’t have any idea how what they’ve learned in school is used, so much of what they learn just seems irrelevant. I’m a big fan of project-based learning ... because it mimics the real world. Hardly anything gets done on your own; you’re always working in teams, and whatever you’re working on is almost always interdisciplinary. It’s not just solving linear equations; there may be linear equations to solve, but it’s in the context of designing a Mars lander that won’t crash.


Kristin Baltrusaitis

Public Health

Kristin Baltrusaitis

Children’s health researcher, Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research at Harvard University

What role do statistics and data science play in your job?

I work with the IMPAACT network, an international network to improve the health outcomes for infants, children, and adolescents, as well as pregnant and postpartum people who are impacted by or living with HIV [the virus that causes AIDS]. I work in a lot of clinical trials that assess [anti-AIDS] drugs, and these populations typically aren’t included in clinical trials, so statistics takes a really important role. We look at different doses and concentrations and we do a lot of [data] plots over time, calculating different measurements to make sure that the levels of drugs that these children are getting are safe and effective.

Animated image representing aspects of statistics in biological research

How did your K-12 education prepare you for the math you use in your job?

Other than algebra or learning what a mean was, I didn’t have a lot of statistical coursework within my high school. It wasn’t until undergraduate that I took a statistics-specific course.

How would you improve K-12 instruction in this math?

In my undergrad, I was a biochemistry major and I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I taught high school mathematics and then I taught high school science. A lot of what I saw was the disconnect between the science and the mathematics instruction, and thinking, you know, science is a really great field to really apply those mathematical principles.


Journalism

Geoff Hing
Data Reporter, The Marshall Project

What role do statistics and data science play in your job?

I work as a data journalist [at the Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative news group], and I often will calculate summary statistics or descriptive statistics across the data set to understand the center of a particular data point. I will use simple statistics like a correlation coefficient as just a basic initial test of two characteristics of a person or a city or whatever in my data sets, to see if there’s any signal that they might be correlated and whether I want to report that further based on talking to people or by using a more sophisticated statistical method. In rare cases where it’s warranted, I’ll use something like linear regression [a statistical method to analyze the relationship between two variables] or logistic regression [a statistical model to estimate the likelihood of an event based on a set of independent variables] to be able to quantify how much a dynamic is driven by a particular variable in the data set.

And of course, I feel like we all use a ton of statistics in our work in ways that we don’t even think about. When I record an interview, I use some kind of transcription program that uses statistics under the hood, calculating the probabilities that a certain sound is a certain word in a particular language. I think it’s important to keep in mind that we’re all—whether we’re calculating the statistics ourselves or using a programming language like Python or R to calculate the statistics we are using—most of us are probably using statistics in our work under the hood, and that’s especially the case with generative AI as ChatGPT becomes a part of more and more industries.

Animated illustration of data journalism elements such as data collection interviews.

How did your K-12 education prepare you for the math you use in your job?

I definitely was exposed to some basic descriptive statistics, but it was sort of sprinkled in with other courses in K-12. I’m sure at some point we learned about probability and I’m almost certain we learned about measures of center, but for the more formal stuff, I think the first time I took a course that was labeled “statistics” was as an undergrad. If I had been able to choose, I think in both my work and even in other kinds of academic work that would’ve interested me, statistics would’ve been a lot more useful as a background than calculus. But going to engineering school as an undergrad, I didn’t have that choice.

How would you improve K-12 instruction in this math?

Even if I would’ve had a statistics class in K-12, I think in a lot of especially introductory statistics classes, when you’re working with data, it’s a contrived data set, and it’s one where you don’t really think about where the numbers are coming from, what is being counted, what’s not being counted, why that was the subject chosen to collect data from which you can calculate statistics. I’m not sure to what degree that’s part of K-12 statistics curriculum in science or math, but I know that some university journalism educators have exercises around having students build data sets either about things that interest them in their communities or even just very personal things about their daily habits. And I think that’s just both a really engaging way to think about statistics and also to get that there’s a lot of complexity and a lot of nuance to even get the numbers from which you calculate.

Dive Deeper

This story is part of Miscalculating Math, a deep examination of math instruction.
Overview and key data: Advocates say reforms in math teaching are pushing out statistics and geometry and driving a drop in students’ math scores. Here’s what you need to know.
Q&As: Hear three professionals talk about how they use statistics and geometry in their careers.
Handy guide: Find tips, lesson ideas, and free resources for beefing up instruction in statistics and geometry.
Quiz: Test your knowledge of math concepts, and then see how U.S. students fared.
Complete Coverage: There’s even more to explore on this topic. Check out the complete collection, Miscalculating Math.

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