Math in Real Life


by Rob Colfax, Patrick Redding & P.L. Miller

Maybe it’s different now, but when many of us were in school, math was a terribly boring subject. If you weren’t good at math, you were bored because doing something for an hour each day that you don’t understand isn’t very interesting. On the other hand, if you were good at math, it was boring because you couldn’t imagine when you’d ever use it outside the classroom.

You probably had “story problems” where Joe leaves Austin on a train traveling 50 mph while Alex leaves Dallas in his car traveling 60 mph, and you try to figure out who’ll get to Waco first. And this probably meant very little, because will you ever want to go to Waco badly enough to figure out the fastest way to get there? Besides, you can look it up on Google now.

Math was not presented as something useful. Oh, sure, occasionally a teacher would try to muster up some enthusiasm and assure you that there were all sorts of real-life uses for what you were struggling to learn. You could tell, though. They didn’t believe it. They were teaching it because it was required.

What you need… what students need anytime, with any subject… is a way to relate it to life outside the classroom.

Who cares about the two-dimensional problems of a couple of guys on a Texas road trip?

You need practical applications.

Like these.

Math in Your Workplace

A group of coworkers are going on a trip out of town for training at another branch of your company. You’re the one who has to make the hotel arrangements. You want to get the most people into the fewest rooms, but there are some personal quirks that make this tricky.

Jack smokes and drinks and has bad personal hygiene. Brad spends his spare time reading religious literature – often aloud. Anna is a party girl. Cherie is a relatively easy-going mother of three. Marcus is a young 20-something, and you think he’s probably gay but he’s never said so “officially.” Harry is an older fellow, set in his ways and completely unenthusiastic about this whole trip. Nina is an anxiety-ridden perfectionist. Rumor has it that Anna and Jack are sleeping together, but you can’t ask them if it’s true, and anyway, HR will get their panties in a bunch if you assign opposite sexes to the same room. HR will also not appreciate it if your room assignments result in someone lodging a complaint about Brad’s evangelizing because that will prompt him to complain about having his religious freedoms curtailed. Draw a Venn diagram to indicate your possible room assignments.

Math and the Social Sciences

You go out drinking with your friends every Friday night at a bar where the cover charge is $5, draft beer is $1 per drink, and mixed drinks range from $4 margaritas to $9.50 martinis. One of your friends is very attractive and flirtatious and men often buy drinks for your whole table, but she usually leaves after a couple of hours. If you drink only margaritas and tip the bartender $2 for each drink, how long can you drink on $20? Bonus: how long before your blood alcohol content makes you forget that you set a $20 limit for yourself?

Math and Pet Economics

You have 4 cats who eat half a can of food each per day, and you’re trying to get the best deal on food that they actually like. Bitsy is allergic to salmon, Winky won’t eat beef, Lawrence will eat any flavor but only a few bites of it, and Gingersnap will eat as much as he can get of any flavor ever made, but he won’t eat the same flavor two days in a row. Also: you must get flavors with extra gravy for Winky because he’s on a medication that you have to hide in his food and you can only pull it off with the extra-gravy kind. The local pet supply store has individual cans of every flavor available for 60 cents per can. You can get the same food through a monthly service online for 50 cents per can (with free shipping) but you can’t buy single cans, only cases of 24. Fortunately, you can order variety packs where the case has 8 cans each of 3 different flavors. Unfortunately, the regular variety packs have both salmon and beef. Winky loves salmon, but it’s not the extra-gravy kind. The extra-gravy variety packs have beef, but no salmon. Without getting any kinds of food that no one will eat, how much will you spend each month to accommodate the special needs of your furry children?

Math and Music

You and your friends have a garage band, and you’ve put together a CD of your best material. Your bassist works as a graphic artist, so she designed the cover; her employer lets her burn your CDs on one of the workplace computers, as long as you buy your own materials. Your drummer works at an electronics discount store, where he uses his employee discount to purchase the blank CDs at $15 for a spindle of 100. You work at a copy shop where you can print the cover sheets free after hours as long as you buy your own paper, which you get for $4 per ream (500 sheets). Fans can buy the CD on your website or at your shows for $20. They can also download it instantly on your website for $10 or buy individual tracks online for $1 each. If you sell 500 copies of your CD at shows, 150 downloads of the CD online, and 750 single-track downloads, how many of you can quit your day jobs? Bonus question: how many of those “free” cover sheets can you print before the manager checks the counter on the machine and fires you?

Math in Weights and Measures

You weigh 180 lbs and your spouse weighs 250 lbs. You have a 95-lb dog, who likes to ride in the back area of your 2-door hatchback. If the space in the parking lot of the pet store is 9 feet wide and there are minivans parked on both sides of you, how many of you will have to climb out the hatchback to keep from dinging the vehicles on either side of your car?

Math and Medicine

Your doctor has written you a prescription for a medication, 4 tablets a day as needed, refillable for 3 months. For a 30-day supply, you’re charged a $15 copay. On about 1 day out of 3, you find that you only need to take 2 tablets. Your insurance company has notified you that in 6 months, it will no longer cover this medication, which means that you’ll pay the full price of $125 for a 30-day supply. You learn that if your doctor writes your prescription for a 90-day supply, you can save $16. What is your best course of action?

a) Consult with the pharmacist and your doctor to see if your insurance covers a reasonable substitute
b) Ask your doctor to begin writing your prescriptions for a 90-day supply
c) Sell your extra tablets to the local drug dealer for $1 per tablet
d) Stop taking this medication altogether, which is likely to result in hospitalization for you

Math and Risk Management

You are paid $25 per hour before taxes at your marketing agency job, and you typically work 8 hours each day. It snowed last night and the roads are very icy. You do not own a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, and your auto insurance deductible is $1000. Should your idiot boss realistically expect you to come in today?

Household Budgeting Math

Your rent each month is $700, which includes water but no other utilities. Your electric bill runs about $200 each month. Your phone service is $75 each month, internet is $75, and your car payment is $200. You have two children, Jake and Cody; Jake is an honor student who often goes on parent-funded school trips, and Cody is an average student who spends most of his time watching TV or playing games online. You spend about $750 each month on groceries, gas and incidentals. Your job pays you $15 per hour and you work 40 hours per week; you clear about $500 per week after taxes and insurance. However, you get a notice that your rent is going up $25 per month and will no longer include water, which the landlord estimates will cost you around $50 per month. On top of this, your supervisor is told to cut everyone’s hours by 10%. How much in the hole will you be after one month of this, and which of the children do you consider selling first?

Math and Chemistry

Chuck drops 1 package of Mentos into a 2-ltr bottle of Coke. Caitlyn uses 2 packages of Mentos for a 1-ltr bottle of Coke, and dances around in her bikini while her cat plays the piano. Who gets the most hits on YouTube?

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