In case this whole series seemed to you like a bit of a straw man (it did to Kate Nowak and Michael Pershan) here’s the New York Times Editorial Board:

**A growing number of schools are helping students embrace STEM courses by linking them to potential employers and careers, taking math and science out of textbooks and into their lives.** The high school in Brooklyn known as P-Tech, which President Obama recently visited, is a collaboration of the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with IBM. It prepares students for jobs like manufacturing technician and software specialist.

[..]

Though many of these efforts remain untested, **they center around a practical and achievable goal: getting students excited about science and mathematics**, the first step to improving their performance and helping them discover a career.

Pick any application of math to the job world and I promise you I can come up with 50 math problems about that application that students will *hate*. Get a little coffee in me and I’ll crank out 49 more. It’s that *one* problem, the one out of 100 that students might enjoy, that’s *really* tricky to create, and often times its “real world”-ness is its least important aspect.

Chris Hunter reminds me (via email) that the British Columbia Institute of Technology has made a similar bet on “real-world” math. Here’s an example:

Once again, we’re asking students to substitute given information for given variables and evaluate them in a given formula. Does anyone want to make the case that our unengaged students will find the nod to structural engineering persuasive?

The “real world” isn’t a guarantee of student engagement. **Place your bet, instead, on cultivating a student’s capacity to puzzle and unpuzzle herself**. Whether she ends up a poet or a software engineer (and who knows, really) she’ll be well-served by that capacity as an adult and engaged in its pursuit as a child.

**Featured Comments**

Chris Hartmann points out that these application of math to jobs often miss the math that’s most relevant to those jobs:

And, in the job world a lot of the mathematics isnâ€™t done by human minds or hands anymore, with good reason. Faster, more accurate means are available using technology. What often remains is puzzling out the results.

Mr. K:

The telling thing is that the Timesâ€™s example of a real world problem that real world people canâ€™t solve, that of calculating the cost of a carpet for a room, is pretty much a guaranteed loser for any math class that I have ever taught at any level.

On the other hand, yesterday I had a room full of third round algebra students engrossed in building rectangles with algebra tiles. Thatâ€™s about as non real world as it gets.

gasstationwithoutpumps:

The moment of inertia for rotating a I-beam about its long axis has no practical relevance in structural engineering. This is a fake-world problem, of no interest either mathematically or to engineers.

There are real-world applications for moment of inertia problems, but this is not one of them.

nerdypoo:

This seems to be a perennial favorite. In 2011 the Times asked if we needed a new way to teach math, with this quote:

â€œA math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. â€

Iâ€™m certain I could find an example of such an article from every few years …