Logo: University of Southern California

Real World Mathematics

USC Viterbi hosts an applied mathematics workshop for high-school teachers.
By: Natalia Velez
July 27, 2015 —

Professor Kenneth Chelst of the Wayne State University School of Engineering and Julie Higle, Chair of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at USC.  (Photo Credit: Natalia Velez)
Most high school students find themselves wondering whether the concepts they learn in math class are applicable to the real world. The truth is, according to math teachers, high school math textbooks usually offer preparation for college math courses rather than providing their students with tools that they can use to solve everyday problems.

In hopes of showing high school teachers how to create math courses that offer solutions to tangible issues, Professor Kenneth Chelst of the Wayne State University School of Engineering offered a workshop titled ‘When Will I Ever Use This?’ at USC. The event, which took place between July 19 to July 22, was funded by Legendary Studios and supported by the Daniel J. Epstein Institute at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Professor Chelst teaches high school teachers how to approach forms of mathematics that are very important in more abstract disciplines,” said Julie Higle, chair of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Mathematics Everywhere

Everyone encounters math in everyday life, particularly during election years. For instance, when you start to think about how presidential polls work, and how little people actually know about this, it becomes evident that math teachers need to show their students how to transfer formulas into something outside of the classroom.

However, the education system doesn’t recognize that there is a certain degree of mathematical reasoning in every field of study. For this reason, most people can graduate from high school and never look at math again.

Peter Berkhout, math teacher at Marin Catholic High School. (Photo Credit: Natalia Vélez)
“Whenever I tell people that I’m a math teacher, their response is usually ‘I hate math!’” said Peter Berkhout, a teacher at Marin Catholic High School. “I’ve even had students that walk into my class and openly tell me that they’re not interested in the subject at all.”

This lack of interest in mathematics has a lot to do with the way that math classes are structured. Students are rarely presented with problems that have real-world application, which is why they don’t realize that they could extrapolate mathematical concepts to situations that are meaningful to them.

“One of the problems that I will definitely take back to my classroom is about helping students choose what college they want to go to by quantifying things that are normally not quantifiable, such as how much they like the school and whether their friends are going there or not,” said Jerod Dien, who teaches math at Culver City High. “This doesn’t result in a definitive solution, but it does allow kids to make a more informed decision.”

Establishing connections between math and the real world is every teacher’s dream. With professor Chelst’s approach to math, students can actually use the concepts right away.

“This workshop taught me how to teach students to use math for a level of analysis that I have wanted to introduce them to for a while, but just didn’t know how to,” said Karen Law, a math teacher at Blair High School. “I will definitely use professor Chelst’s problems in my class, especially the ones involving future life decisions.”