I remember, when I was a student back in the ‘80s, one of the ways the importance of mathematics was stressed to us was its impact on our daily lives. And, generally speaking, this was through a practical lens of things like budgeting, filing tax forms, comparison shopping, and basic financial calculations. Over the next decade, the analytical and critical thinking involved in learning mathematics were used to cast a more detailed eye on how mathematics is used/misused in print media.
The best example was John Allen Paulos’ A Mathematician Reads The Newspaper, a book which wonderfully showed the importance of reading newspaper articles and stories with a mathematical eye.
It was first released in 1997, but rereleased with a new preface in 2013. This book, while it was important over 20 years ago, is far more important today in an age where truth in information is even more critical, as is ensuring that students possess the mathematical literacy to assess the reliability of the information that is presented to them.
The bar on how important mathematics and data science are to our lives has definitely been raised for the upcoming decade. But how important math is to all of us is being looked at through yet another lens, one that became the premise of a long-awaited and critically acclaimed book by Francis Su: Mathematics for Human Flourishing.
If you have a playful mind or a playful spirit, or you’re seeking truth, or pursuing beauty, or fighting for justice, or loving another human being — these are activities that line up with certain virtues.
The preponderance of math’s value to our daily lives is represented in these two books. To not only see the everyday practicality of numbers, but also the role they play in the larger idea of how we can all flourish in a kinder, more mutually supportive world.
Even a trip to the grocery store can be filled with the practical application of mathematics and even ways to amuse yourself using numbers. One aspect of that is saving money and looking for deals. The ability to quickly find the unit pricing for a grocery item is critical in being able to discern what is a good deal and what is not. Another is when buying non-perishables. When they go on sale, a lot of people stock up and store them in the pantry. Making a mental note of the going price of a staple is a really good idea. That way, if a store is having a “sale” on a brand of peanut butter, you’ll know if the price is good in absolute terms, or just good relative to what the store normally charges.
When you’re finished loading the cart, the mathematics doesn’t stop. Now you have to pick which checkout line is the fastest. Do you simply go by the number of people in front of you? Do you take into account the number of items in each person’s cart? Or do you actually consider how many items need to be weighed, like fruits and vegetables?
Fortunately, the great math educator Dan Meyer wrestled with this problem over 10 years ago!
Now, while you are waiting in line, a fun game that I still play is estimating the total cost of my groceries and seeing how close I can get to the actual bill. This involves the rounding up and down of prices, multiplication, and finally, addition. I remember one time, I managed to give the cashier the exact amount using my mental math. Just the look on his face was worth the self-imposed math challenge!
So you see, even the simple act of buying groceries can become the mathematical intersection of practicality and pleasure!