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A Day At The Races

The infinite possibilites of math.


A past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics once said that “teaching math is the most important job on the planet.” Now that is a pretty bold statement. While the most important job on the planet may be up for debate, there can be no argument about the importance of math in our daily lives. And on some days math is very, very important.

My grandfather was the first one to truly teach me about the importance of math.  I was in 2nd grade and he was fortuitously babysitting us on the day of the running of the 130th Kentucky Derby, unofficially known as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” My grandfather loves horses. He often tells the old joke that he loves horses so much that when a cowboy gets shot in a old western movie, he always wonders who got his horse. That day he had my brother and me help him figure out the odds of winning big. With a pencil and paper and in those oversized numbers you make when you are learning to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, we learned how to figure out how much the trifecta would pay when Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, and Imperialism crossed the line in that order.  I just remember how much fun it all was. Our calculations went on for weeks until my mother caught wind of things and shut down the whole operation just days before the Preakness. My grandfather was the first to tell us to pay attention in math class.  He said we could sleep through everything else.

A few years later I had a math teacher in fifth grade that made math the best part of my day. My classmate Connor and I were working on a project where we got a million dollars to spend however we wanted as long as we itemized our expenses.  Connor and I spent our time in math class researching how much it would cost to buy a huge, completely loaded mobile home and a Lamborghini. We would drive across the country in the mobile home towing the Lamborghini, sleep in campgrounds, and drive ourselves in style in the Lamborghini to see a game and buy souvenirs in every Major League Baseball stadium in the U.S. until the money ran out.  We read road maps, calculated gas prices, ticket prices, campground fees, and researched Lamborghinis. We found we had enough to get the 2007 Spyder model if we ate only hotdogs at the campsite (the dogs at the ball fields would have bankrupted us). Unfortunately, this was one of those “rare” instances when math had no “real world application.” Connor and I never got our money and the most exciting ballpark I went to that summer was Cragan Field. It was probably for the best as to this day neither one of us has our license. In fact, Connor rides a bike to school most days.

That same year, Mrs. Cram, our math teacher, taught us about Pi, the irrational constant that mathematically explains the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. We celebrated the infinite possibilities of math on March 14, Pi Day.  Every math teacher I’ve ever had since then right up to my current teacher, Mrs. Dulac, has reminded me of Mrs. Cram in some ways.  Every one of them believes in the infinite possibilities of math, the importance of math to everyday life, and the capacity of mathematics to solve common problems and forge new, innovative, and complex discoveries.  They see numbers everywhere in everything. They teach as if they really believe they are doing the most important job on the planet. I know from personal experience that they believe, like my grandfather, that you need to stay awake in math class. Don’t test them on this point. But who can argue with that? After all, how else are you going to learn how to figure out how big the payout will be when Union Rags wins the 2012 Kentucky Derby?

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John Walsh March 14, 2012 at 06:19 PM
Another great post, Andrew. Clearly, you have not been sleeping through English class, despite your grandfather's suggestion.
Martha Reynolds March 14, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Such an enjoyable read!
Linda Cram March 18, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Andrew, As a follower of your blog, you can imagine my surprise upon reading “A Day at the Races” on March 14, Pi Day. Not only did I laugh out loud, it also brought tears to my eyes. I clearly remember your project that year and the fun we had in math class. We continue to jet around the globe, buying Lamborghinis and searching for innovative ways to spend a million dollars, although souvenir shopping has changed from purchasing MLB baseball caps to iPads. Thanks for sharing your fond memories with a grateful teacher who still loves teaching math. And by the way, you weren’t sleeping in English class, either! Mrs. Cram

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