Monday, November 8, 2010

You Want Me To Take What?

 by Shawn Strasburg

            “When am I ever going to use these skills?” A question posed by many people as they take the classes required for a college degree. Often times, college skills or knowledge can seem useless in light of a chosen career path. For centuries colleges have required specific course work and students have paid in time, money, study stress, and sleepless nights. Questions to the need of courses are not limited to mathematics and natural sciences; the worth of humanities, social sciences and communication are also often pondered.
            I believe knowledge can be summed up in two ways; information you know, and information you know how to find. At Fort Hays State an interesting idea was posed by a Professor to her students. The idea was not to teach a student information, but to teach a student how to find information. With an innumerable amount of facts and statistics, it becomes exceedingly hard to determine what information should be taught to students in order to prepare them for a career. This dilemma is compounded yearly as technology continues to evolve to the point that by the time a text book is written, some of the information is obsolete. With all of this data, it becomes impossible to retain much of the information you will need to perform a job.
            I first found myself questioning the need for college algebra when I started doing mathematical formulas I had not needed in 18 years of employment. Then I read Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. In it, he has an example of compound interest. If $1,000 is invested at 6% for 40 years the end result is $10,285. At 18% interest, $1,000 grows to $750,378. Wow, math suddenly became more interesting and I promptly walked down to Professor Chad Swanson’s office and asked for the formula to figure compound interest. He found it in the Trigonometry book and copied it on a piece of paper for me. I have no illusions of making 18% interest; however, my credit cards’ interest rates are pretty close. I quickly cut up the cards that I was paying such a ridiculous rate on. In Money magazine, Nov. 2010 page 75 it states that by paying $1,000 down on a credit card, on average it effectively returned at 14%, and that was certainly figured out using math.
            When I decided to write this paper I interviewed two Professors. Once again I stopped into Professor Swanson’s office to find some more facts on Algebra. He agreed that in many careers higher math would never be required. Yet as the conversation continued on I found many other benefits. One that I would not have considered was free thinking, the proverbial thinking outside the box. As with many of the courses in college, different ways of dealing with situations are taught. In Construction you may use the Pythagoras Theorem of a2 + b2 = c2 to square a house and never know it (the 3 4 5 method). Yet in 10 years of construction I never divided rational expressions. However, learning how to think beyond what is normal can be quite beneficial. When you are 40 miles from town with the wrong part or tool, by altering your thought process you can often improvise a technique or repair, saving time and money.
            In hunting, target shooting, cooking, and animal husbandry mathematical formulas can be invaluable. Math, as a foreign language, is not learned over night. Often times the steps taken to get to a reasonable use of the skills can be frustrating. The point of being able to figure out the trajectory of a 175 grain bullet with a ballistic coefficient of .608 shot 500 yards through a 10 mph cross-wind from an elevation of 6500 feet to an elevation of 6000 feet at 3200 fps with a temperature of 32 degrees and humidity of 30%, is not in the first few weeks of algebra. However, if you had just spent $10,000 on a hunting trip, it would be nice to know how to place a shot by having certain scenarios computed ahead of time. If you have some hobby animals and want to care for them, it would save a lot of money to be able to follow dosage instructions and doctor the animals yourself. As you can see even in hobbies math can be very useful.
            I also interviewed Biology Professor Sara Morris. She also has an interesting take on using information and skills gained in college. She felt that Biology could be very useful for people in decision making. Political ideas such as stem-cell research could be voted on from an informed view point with information that could be gathered by a Biology student. Health care products could be analyzed as to whether they were beneficial, or just a waste of money. There are also many agricultural ties to Biology as many farmers and ranchers are Biologists in nature. Professor Morris also brought up the fact that many people change majors in college and career fields once in the work force. In rerouting a career it is advantageous to have as many roads open as possible. Chances of employment at non-profit organizations would be greatly increased as many conservation agencies are interested in fields related to Biology. She also commented much the same way as Professor Swanson did, stating that by learning new things the world would open up in a way previously unimagined. The idea she brought forth that most related to me, was that even though some information was repetition of high school, there comes a time when things make sense. Through experience, relearning ideas may make concepts real by how they have played a role in our lives. Also through learning new ideas or revisiting old premises, interest in career paths may surface that were once unknown.
            I find that in applying ideas given by the professors as to the legitimacy of their fields of knowledge would also apply in humanities, social sciences, and communications. Despite your job choice, a few key pieces of information will apply from each area of learning. Beyond that, work ethics learned in classes that are commonly despised, should prepare you for tasks in life that are unsavory. Also differing viewpoints and analytical thinking can season you as an academic. 
            Even though you may never need to draw in three point perspective, or know John Locke‘s theories, or solve quadratic equations, such skills can often expand your potential. In a tough economy, being MacGyver can lead to job security and money savings. An innovative, well rounded employee is often termed irreplaceable after saving the company through skills learned in college. When your fellow employees are being lay-off would you rather be an irreplaceable asset or just the average employee?

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