Whether they liked math or hated it, most still say they use parts of what they learned every day.
From arithmetic to algebra, there is plenty of disagreement over how best to teach math. Some parents and educators argue that students need to understand the concepts behind the problems they complete, while others advocate for more practice and a highly structured teaching approach.
Across Washington’s community colleges, a program known as I-BEST makes math relevant to students by teaching it in the context of a profession like machinery or anesthesiology. Higher education reporter Katherine Long profiled that approach in a recent Education Lab story.
Along with the story, we asked readers to share their own experiences and insights on how they or their kids have learned math. What’s most effective? And how much of the math they learned in school is still useful today?
The following is a selection of their responses. Some have been edited for length and clarity.
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I liked math at an early age. My parents recognized my interest and would buy math workbooks from the local teaching supply store for me to work on at my leisure; I thought they were fun.
I remember most of my math from school. I received a degree in chemical engineering. While I no longer use the upper level math (differential equations, etc.) needed to complete my engineering degree, I still do math (algebra, statistics, and typical math applications of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication) in my current job as an environmental engineer.
— Marlowe Laubach, Seattle
Calculus in college is when all of those boring algebraic algorithms first made any sense, especially when I had to use it for practical application in micro electronics. As an example, the imaginary number “i” only makes sense in reality when dealing with negative voltage. As a union electrician, I use algebra and trigonometry every day.
—Nicholas Petrish, Mount Vernon
When I graduated from high school, I had a very limited understanding of math. I couldn’t add fractions, and forget anything having to do with algebra. So when I started working towards my degree at a local community college, I placed into the lowest math class available (Math 081). It was both humiliating and daunting, knowing that I had so many years and math prerequisite courses to take before I could even start earning college math credits. But taking that remedial math class was life changing! The instructor was infinitely patient and encouraging.
I actually apply a lot of what I had learned through my community college education to my current job. As a manager, I’m responsible for keeping an eye on our group’s budgets. I use math regularly to calculate burn rates and project spending.
I know firsthand how daunting the process of taking prerequisite math courses can be, and how it can potentially scare students away from taking the necessary steps to finish their degrees. It’s really commendable that community colleges are doing what they can to encourage and empower students to succeed.
—Lesley Wilkerson, Seattle
Math was my best subject, so in a way, it always clicked. Having said that, some of the nuances took a while to sink in. For example, the definition of continuity I learned in my high school calculus class didn’t really gel with me until a couple of years later, as I was walking to the university, the real meaning popped into my head out of the blue.
I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. I use hardly any of the specific aspects of the coursework in my job. However, I believe that the real value of learning math is learning rigorous thinking. And that, well that I use every single day in my work.
–Eric Bell, Seattle