Who needs maths? Oh, only animators, builders, nurses, plumbers...

That’s Maths: You’d be surprised how many people use mathematics at work

Vital subject: weusemaths.ie shows the links  between the curriculum, courses and careers. Photograph: iStock/Getty

Vital subject: weusemaths.ie shows the links between the curriculum, courses and careers. Photograph: iStock/Getty

 

In the midst of Maths Week Ireland many students may be asking, “What use is mathematics and what purpose is served by studying it?” Mathematicians often stress the inherent beauty and intellectual charm of the subject, but that is unlikely to persuade many people, who demand to know how mathematics can be of use and value to them.

In reality, mathematics is essential in numerous contexts: the diversity is remarkable, and you may be surprised how maths plays a vital role in the everyday work of so many people.

Who uses mathematics in their work? The list is very long, but a sample might include accountants, actuaries, air traffic controllers, animators, architects, astronomers, builders, cartographers, chemists, cryptographers, economists, electricians, engineers, financiers, farmers, geologists, hydrologists, journalists, pharmacists, photographers, pilots, plumbers, stockbrokers, surveyors, teachers, urban planners and web designers. Many more careers might be added to this list.

What’s the point?

Students who have difficulties learning mathematics may wonder “What’s the point?” The website weusemaths.ie has been constructed by Colin Hogg of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies with the aim of showing how maths is vital for many great careers. This website makes connections between the mathematics curriculum for the Junior and Leaving Certificate and the wide range of people who use maths every day in the course of their work. The key idea is to make clear links between the curriculum, courses and careers.

Twelve career sectors are discussed in which mathematics is involved in an essential way. By reading the pages on a particular sector – eg healthcare or engineering – students can learn how mathematics is used in those careers, in what way the school maths curriculum provides a foundation and what third-level courses should be followed to gain access to these careers. There are interviews with young people in each sector, where they explain how they use maths in their work. An infectious enthusiasm pervades many of these interviews.

School curriculum

The school mathematics curriculum was designed to enable students to develop the problem-solving skills that are needed in higher education and in the workplace. The idea is to study mathematics in the context of challenging, real-world problems. The five strands of the new curriculum are statistics and probability, geometry and trigonometry, number, algebra and functions. An outline of the curriculum is given on weusemaths.ie, and also a link to the official National Council for Curriculum and Assessment website for full details.

Statistics and probability are perhaps the most commonly applied areas of mathematics, used by journalists, stockbrokers, nurses, athletes, data scientists, actuaries and, of course, statisticians. Geometry and trigonometry are crucial for engineers, surveyors, architects, geographers and web designers. Algebra is used by market analysts, animators, software developers and geoscientists. Functions and calculus are essential for meteorologists, engineers, pharmaceutical scientists, hydrologists and everyone involved in mathematical modelling. The topics studied under “numbers” are of use to essentially everybody, at work, at home and at play.

Under the heading Courses & Careers, the website gives information about 50 different careers, the mathematics involved and the pathways by which students may enter each career. Students who know what career they would like to pursue, but who don’t know how to go about it, may find this a very valuable resource. All the occupations in the long list above are included, and many more besides. The We Use Maths site also includes a list of partners involved in developing the site and a link to contact the website to pose questions or provide feedback.

Peter Lynch is emeritus professor at UCD school of mathematics and statistics; he blogs at thatsmaths.com