Math at Work Monday Gets Artsy

Math at Work Monday Goes Artsy


I’ve been interviewing people about how they use math in the work for at least three years. And that means I have a really nice archive of Q&As with fascinating people. And in looking at these interviews, I see that they fall into several categories. So over the next few months, I’ll roll out archives of these interviews. First up, the arteests! 

Math at Work Monday: Bonnee the Freelance Artist

Bonnee Byrne is a freelance artist and owner of Signs by Bonnee.  She has been painting artwork and signs for the past twenty-six years.

Math at Work Monday: Sole the fashion designer

When designer Sole Salvo‘s message arrived in my inbox a while back, I was thrilled! As an avid sewer — who doesn’t like using patterns — I am fascinated with the process of fashion design. I know there is a lot of math involved. Some of it has to be a gut instinct — how will this angle work on a human body? And some of it is very calculated — what do I need to add in order to get a 5/8″ seam allowance?

Sole has been working as a designer for nine years, currently working for a large clothing company in New York. Here’s how she uses math in her job.

Math at Work Monday: Sally the photographer

Photography is one of those art forms that looks easy but is really challenging — at least challenging to get it done right!  Writer and photojournalist, Sally Wiener Grotta describes how math helps her compose the best photograph, including perfect lighting.

Math at Work Monday: Elizabeth the glass artist

I’ve known Elizabeth Perkins since she was about 16 years old, I think.  In fact, I’ve always called her Beth.

I was Beth’s geometry teacher way back when.  And I was so excited to find out that she’s now a very successful glass artist.  After graduating from Atlanta College of Art in 1997 with a degree in sculpture, she embarked upon an amazing journey as an artist and teacher.  She earned her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004.

Like me, Beth grew up in a rural, southern town and has a very strong connection to her family, so I’m really moved by her work, which incorporates glass, found objects and heirlooms.  But you know what I’m going to say next: The fact that Beth uses math in her art is both surprising and expected.  Read on to learn more.

Math at Work Monday: Harmony the fabric designer

You may not know this about me yet, but I’m a fabric junkie.  In fact, when I finished my book last winter, my reward was a day-trip to New York City to shop at Mood Designer Fabrics.  I need rehab.

So when Harmony Susalla contacted me to ask if I’d do a guest post on her blog, I jumped at the chance — and I asked her to do an interview with me.  Harmony is a wonderful textile designer, who works in organic cotton.

Math at Work Monday: Ann the art museum curator

Turns out math is not only useful in creating art but caring for it as well. Ann Shafer, associate curator of the prints, drawings and photographs collection at Baltimore Museum of Art, uses math in surprising ways–and surrounded some of the greatest artwork of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Math at Work Monday, Ursula the glass artist

Ursula Marcum practices an amazing artform called kilnformed glass, which she can explain better than I.  Her pieces are layered and rich, unlike any other glass I’ve ever seen.  Like most artists, Ursula does quite of bit of basic math in her work, and she shares the details here.

Math at Work Monday: Marie Grace the children’s knitwear designer

If you don’t knit, a knitwear pattern probably looks like a random selection of letters and numbers.  But that special code actually reveals beautiful creations–sweaters, hats, booties and blankets.  Marie Grace Smith is the founder of Marie Grace Designs, and she lives these patterns.  You might be surprised to learn how much math is involved in developing these patterns.  Marie Grace was!

“If I had known how much math I would need to do to make a living playing with yarn I would have become a painter or something. Just kidding. Sort of.”

Math at Work Monday: Shana the jewelry designer

Shana Kroiz is a Baltimore-based, acclaimed jewelry designer and artist, whose work has been shown in the some of the country’s most esteemed galleries and museums, including The Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.  She’s kind of a big deal–and she does math!

Math at Work Monday: Louisa the Greeting Card Designer

Nothing says hello to a new neighbor like sending a greeting card or an invitation. And cards can mean so much in times of grief or illness. Those special little messages to pull the heart strings have to come from somewhere, right? Louisa Wimberger, founder of Weehah Greeting Cards and Invitations has built a business around these special messages. From greeting cards to invitations, she makes some of the best cards available.

Photo Credit: shioshvili via Compfight cc

Numbers in the News: Teacher Salaries

teacher salaries numbers in the news

The series, Numbers in the News, looks at the numbers underlying hot topics in the U.S. The goal of these posts is not to take a political or moral stand but to simply outline reliable data about these issues. Look for these posts to appear monthly.

Big thank you this week to Annie Logue, a fellow freelance writer and one of my go-to folks for economic data. Check out her books and other writing.

Teacher salaries: what a big debate. Are teachers paid too little? Too much? Haven’t teachers’ unions bumped up teacher pay and benefits so that teachers are given a far greater piece of the pie than similar jobs in the private sector? Are teachers whining too much?

Like many numbers in the news, there are myths surrounding teacher pay. Talk to a weary teacher in an inner city school, and you might hear about working far more than 40 hours per week. Another teacher might tell you that he’s got a second job just to help make ends meet.

But many parents and politicians have a very different view. They say that teachers are well compensated, especially given their generous benefits packages and summers off.

There are a lot of caveats about this particular issue, so bear with me. It is challenging to generalize about teachers’ salaries, because like with many other professions they depend on a variety of factors: time on the job, geographic area, and perhaps most important here, the effectiveness (or even presence) of a teachers’ union. But the biggest caveat is this: comparing public sector and private sector jobs is generally not fair. It makes sense to compare teachers’ salaries from state to state or region to region. But what does it mean to compare teachers’ compensation with those of managers? What does it mean to be a manager? How are these categories developed?

And then there is the whole issue of teachers’ time “on the clock.” I’ll address that concern at the end of this post.

Still, I’m taking the risk to make these comparisons, even knowing that they’re not entirely fair–because they’re the only options we have. I’m going to assume (based on the salary ranges and the descriptions in the tables) that managers are college educated (or the equivalent) and have similar responsibilities as teachers. Teachers manage classrooms, budgets and schedules in similar ways that marketing managers manage staffs, budgets and schedules.

And yes, this is a compromise that is not fair. If you have a better idea, I would love to hear it. Honestly.

To help draw some clumsy conclusions, I’ve turned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a federal agency that keeps track of things like salaries and benefits packages. You can find all of my numbers here. Please do check them.

First off, how much do primary, secondary and special education teachers earn?

Total teacher compensation is $56.89 per hour worked. About 69% of that ($39.20) is wages and salaries, while 31% ($17.69) is total benefits.

So close to a third of a teacher’s compensation package is devoted to benefits. This is an important point, because the public teacher is one of the few workers in the country who still earns retirement and savings. Most pensions and retirement plans went away years ago. But let’s break down the teachers’ benefit package a little more.

Of the teacher’s benefit package, an average of $2.49 is spent on paid leave, $0.17 is spent on supplemental pay, $6.34 is spent on insurance, $5.85 is spent on retirement and savings and $2.84 is spent on legally required benefits.

All of those amounts are per hour, remember. So for every hour worked, a teacher earns, on average, $5.85 in retirement benefits.

What about managers in the private sector? Turns out that the differences are not all that stark.

Total management compensation is $58.28 per hour worked (full-time). About 68% of that ($39.59) is wages and salaries, while 32% ($18.70) is total benefits.

So again, the benefits packages for managers in the private sector are about a third of the total compensation packages. The per-hour compensation for private-sector managers and public school teachers are pretty darned close. Now we can dig into the compensation packages.

Of the private-sector manager’s benefit package, an average of $5.11 is spent on paid leave, $2.73 is spent on supplemental pay, $4.32 is spent on insurance, $2.78 is spent on retirement and savings and $3.75 is spent on legally required benefits.

The balance is really different here. Managers in the private sector earn more on paid leave and supplemental pay, but less in retirement and insurance. Still, the cost of the total benefit package is remarkably similar to that of teachers’.

Again a warning: it is not really fair to compare these two industries in this way. One of the big issues around this is whether or not the hourly rate has been figured correctly. Most teachers will probably say that their hourly rate is much less than $56.89, because they work far more hours than the schools tabulate.

However, research conducted by a variety of outlets reports that teachers work, on average, fewer hours than most professionals, including managers. In this round up of the research, NPR and StateImpact (a consortium of Ohio public radio stations) report that teachers work three hours fewer per week than other professionals. This research is in line with BLS foundational data for the numbers above.

So why is there such a different impression among teachers? Some teachers work two jobs. They tutor or coach a sport or put in time at the local diner. And of course, just because some teachers put in the minimum, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t many teachers out there who are putting in far more than a 40-hour work week.

And then there is new research from the Gates Foundation, which concluded that teachers put in 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, far more than the BLS estimates. (See page 13 of the linked report for the details.) If true, the hourly wages and salary totals for teachers are much, much too high. Then again, BLS could be underestimating for all industries and professions.

Clearly this debate is not easily defined or settled. We need better data about how much teachers actually work and better ways to compare the information we do have. In my mind, the discussion about teacher pay is far from over.

What are your thoughts on the data presented above? On the teacher salary debate? Do you have personal experience as a teacher or a private-sector manager? If so, please share your ideas in the comments section. 

Photo Credit: smkybear via Compfight cc

Numbers in the News: Guns

handgun # in news


This is the first of a series of posts looking at the numbers underlying hot topics in the U.S. The goal of this series is not to take a political or moral stand but to simply outline reliable data about these issues. Look for these posts to appear monthly.

I grew up in a hunting community. On the first day of deer season, students could take an excused absence, as long as they had a note from home that stated they were out hunting.

My 15-year-old daughter enjoys target shooting. Her favorite gun is a semi-automatic.

But despite my background, I have never fired a gun. I admit freely that I don’t particularly like them. At the same time, I have respect for those who hunt and use guns for sport, like target practice. And I respect the professionals in law enforcement who carry weapons in order to keep us safe.

Those are the disclaimers, as I step carefully into this loaded topic (pardon the pun). As a journalist who writes about math, I believe that numbers can help us understand these complex and controversial topics. With that said, I want to break down some of the numbers that describe our country’s relationship with guns.

This is something that anyone who consumes news reports or reacts to current events should be able to do. It’s a grownup skill that requires a little bit of math and a lot of logic. Because of the controversy involved in gun ownership and shooting incidents, it’s a good idea to turn to the numbers. So here we go.

The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are approximately 270 million guns owned by civilians in the U.S.

No one can say for sure that this number is absolutely correct. That’s because there is no way to definitively count the number of civilian-owned guns. There are several reasons for this. First, gun registrations is managed on a state-by-state basis. In fact, eight states explicitly prohibit the registration of firearms (though many have exceptions that require, for example, registration of a firearm by someone who was convicted of a crime). Without registering guns, it’s difficult to count them. Second, notice of the sale or transfer of guns is not required by all states. And stolen or lost guns? These may or may not be reported either.

If we can’t count the number of guns owned by Americans, we certainly have difficulty counting the types of guns in legal circulation. And never mind the number of illegally possessed firearms.

Still 270 million is generally recognized as the best estimate. And no one can deny that this is a large number. This is when we start comparing ourselves to other countries. India comes in second place with 46 million civilian-owned guns. Then China (40 million), Germany (25 million) and Pakistan (18 million). And while these numbers may be interesting, they don’t tell the whole story. Math helps with that.

Take the U.S. and India for example. The U.S. has a lot of guns, and India has a lot of people. So it’s useful to consider the number of guns per 100 people. (Or it could be per person or per 10 people… whatever.) In the U.S. there are 88 firearms per 100 men, women and children. In India, there are 4. Yes, four. Because India’s population is so much larger than the U.S.’s, the rate of guns per 100 people is much lower.

This brings in another interesting comparison: the U.S. and Yemen. In Yemen, there are approximately 11.5 million civilian-owned guns, but there are 55 guns per person. Small population + lots of guns = high rate of guns per person. In fact, the U.S. has more guns per 100 people than any other country in the world. (Yemen comes in second place.)

Now none of this says that guns are good or bad. These are just numbers. But it does point to differences in how countries (and the people in them) think about guns. This is definitely something worth looking into. But for now, let’s consider another number.

In 2013, the CDC reported 33,636 firearm deaths in the U.S.

Again, that’s a big number. It includes all sorts of deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. What is often overlooked is the extremely high rate for suicide by firearm. Nearly 2/3 of all firearms deaths were suicides in 2013–that’s 21,175. There were 11,208 homicides by firearms in 2013, just about half the number of suicides. That leaves 1,253 deaths that were accidental or unclassified firearm deaths.

It might also be helpful to break down this really big number.

In 2013, firearms were responsible for about 92 deaths per day. That’s nearly 4 people per hour.

Suddenly those numbers are a whole lot more striking. There aren’t even four people in my immediate family! It’s important to remember that this total number includes both suicides and homicides.

Yet when we enter into a discussion about gun control, many of us think about homicides — and specifically mass shootings. According to the FBI, there were 17 “active shooter incidents” in 2013. In those incidents, 44 people died and 42 people were injured. That’s a lot of people and a lot of scary moments. At the same time, compare those numbers with the number of suicides by firearms. That’s a big difference.

Guns were responsible for more than half of all suicides in 2013 in the U.S..

That year, 41,149 people committed suicide, and as stated above, 21,175 of them chose to end their lives using a firearm. So it seems that the best way to reduce suicides and the number of gun deaths is to reduce the number of suicides by guns. Two birds, one stone.

Certainly better mental health care is a good option. But there is something even easier. In Great Britain in the 1950s and 60s, about half of all suicides were by coal gas from ovens. But by the 1970s, coal gas was replaced by natural gas, which has far less carbon monoxide. The suicide rate by gas had dropped to zero (yes, zero) and the overall suicide rate had fallen by a third.

These are striking numbers that suggest that when the means of suicide is eliminated, the suicide rate drops. What would happen in this country, if suicidal folks did not have access to guns?

In my mind, this leads to a logical conclusion: gun control is a matter of public health. I don’t believe that we should rid our country of civilian-owned firearms or outlaw the possibility of owning guns. I do believe that to reduce the incidence of death by firearms, we can develop safety measures. These will likely include a variety of approaches–much like how we ensure that cars are as safe as possible.

How did I come to that conclusion? The numbers told me so.

What are your thoughts on the numbers behind the gun control debate?  Were any of these figures surprising to you? (NOTE: This is a very volatile subject, so I ask that you please keep your comments civil and on point.)


Math at Work Monday: Julie the Digital Marketing and Communications Professional


Today’s interview showcases my talk with Julie Pippert of Artful Media Group who has been in the business of marketing and communications for over 20 years. For the past 4 years she has been doing it digitally which is really exciting. I loved my interview with her not only because I find her job fascinating but also because she is passionate about math, and that wasn’t always the case for her. It gives me hope that everyone can learn to do math well.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I help create strategies and tactics–and sometimes execute these–for clients to promote their product or information to people via the many channels of the Internet. Within this we manage relationships with our community (who may also be customers or potential customers). I don’t use the word “customer” very often because most of my work is nonprofit so it is advocacy, thus we work with members, volunteers and the community. The wonderful thing about modern marketing and PR is that we are able to be very specific in who we reach and how we reach them. For example, for $5 I can reach nearly 30,000 people who I know for a fact are interested in this specific topic. That’s much more cost effective than getting a list of 1 million for tens of thousands of dollars and hoping a few in there might want or need what we’re offering. I have also built influencer programs (people who have highly engaged large communities who are interested in what we do), done trainings, spoken at large conferences, and created tons of online content of all sorts.

IMG_0979When do you use basic math in your job?

Everybody has heard about big data. Well, I rely extensively on that to do my job, do it well, and review if I did my job well. I use formulas in spreadsheets to evaluate rankings and ratings of campaigns and influencers. I measure results through different analytics tools and review results across time to see patterns and trends. I do a lot with means, medians and modes as well as percent and statistics. I have to use basic math to add and subtract as well as multiply and divide numbers to find true meaning. I then take the analysis of the data and report it back to my clients. This is how we measure effect and success.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Of course! Oh my gosh I’d be lost without spreadsheet formulas (many of which other people developed and set out for free use), analytics tools, and calculators. I also dredge up old algebra to figure out how to calculate some final needed numbers.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

I would have no idea if I was reaching my goal and achieving the results I needed without math! Math is how I evaluate how well my words, and where and how I used them, work!

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

I hate hate hated math in school. I moved frequently and suffered large gaps in my learning which always set me behind. It’s much easier to make that up in other subjects, but continuity is crucial for learning math well. Math and numbers are not my strength, anyway. By the time I hit the job market, I had decided now that I was done with school, I was also done with math! No such luck! It turns out that was a good thing. I’ve learned to appreciate and even like applied math. On a scale of 1-10 (most comfortable), I’d say I hover at a 6-7 on comfort level. I’ve never completely rebuilt my confidence, and I still get some formulas backwards. I have figured out that I can calculate in my head. In fact, modern math curriculum would have done me a world of good. Applied math in my job feels very comfortable, though, and I think math is great now. I am so pleased to see numbers and find ways to add them up to something meaningful. You can’t measure without math!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I quit math class the second I reached my final credit. In high school I went up through the second year of algebra which I took in summer school so I could get it over with quickly. In college I took a liberal arts math. I felt like an utter disaster at everything except geometry. I did do well with that but feel it hasn’t come up too often in life. I also had a fantastic teacher who noticed I needed a little extra help and was willing to help me. It was the first time ever with math that I had this sense of wonder and awe of “oh wow I GET it, I totally really GET IT,” and it was great.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

I use the basics of what I learned in school with the math I do in my job, but a lot of it is new. I seriously wish I’d studied statistics  and might do that now.

Anything else you want to mention?

Yes, and I think this is SUPER important. You know how we all accept the fact that kids come into reading at different ages? Where is that understanding for math? Some kids are ready for multiplication in 2nd grade and others not until 4th or even 5th. Math is so prescribed. I think that’s why so many kids hate it and feel such an utter hopeless failure at it. You must achieve this level of math by this age whether your brain is ready or not — and it is so quick and easy to label kids as dumb at math when they don’t fall into that model. We have got to offer more paths of progression for math, just like we do for reading.

What we have finally gotten right is allowing different paths for solving math problems in education. Unfortunately, teachers have got that mixed up, and kids are so confused because they’re expected to master EVERY method of problem solving and demonstrate that mastery on exams, sometimes using the multiple methods for the same problems. Why have different methods for different sorts of kids and brains and then expect all of them to do well?

Have comments or questions for Julie? Let me know!

Math at Work Monday: Ilisa the Communications and Outreach Events Coordinator


Today I spoke with Ilisa Oman from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). She has a big job there and uses math every day. I think it’s pretty cool that even though she isn’t terribly comfortable with math, she’s been able to become proficient in the math she needs to get her job done.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

NAMI Maryland is the state organization for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. My overall job is to make sure our messaging gets out there – erasing the stigma of mental illness and letting people know about all our programs. I have multiple roles in my position. I plan our major events such as our Walk, Annual Conference, Annual Meeting. In addition, I am responsible for all of our communications and outreach efforts such as creating our print and electronic newsletters, messaging through social media, and maintaining our website, flyers, webinars and press releases. And, I am responsible for some fundraising such as our annual campaign and our Walk. In addition to planning the logistics of that event, I am also responsible for soliciting sponsors and recruiting our fundraising teams/donors.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use basic math to create my budgets when planning all of my events. An accurate budget is critical, particularly when working for a small, underfunded non-profit. I need to be cognizant of not only what things cost but also the related service charges and fees and be able to accurately calculate them. I also use math in determining our fundraising goals – percentages, where we are in relation to last year, and where we need to go.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

Calculators and Excel spreadsheets are my best friend. I wouldn’t dream of trying to create a budget without those tools.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

As I mentioned, accurate budgets are critical for any event, but particularly for a small non-profit with little money. Math helps me do my job better because it keeps me on track. Seeing the numbers and an actual budget keeps me grounded and helps me realize the limits I have to work within when planning an event.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you?

Honestly, I am not comfortable with math. I never have been. It is probably harder for me to do this math, even with tools at my disposal, because the functioning of my organization depends on it.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I have never been good at math. My senior year in high school, most of my friends were taking pre-calc at a minimum. However, I took a class called “Pre-College Math” which basically was math to help me on the SAT.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pick up using the skills you learned in school?

The math I use is pretty basic. I just needed to become proficient in Excel.

Anything else you want to mention?

My daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability in math when she was in 2nd grade. Fortunately, in this day and age, there are so many resources out there to help people overcome such challenges, resources that I wish I had when I was young. Never be afraid to ask for help with math!

 Want to know more?  Please ask or comment below.

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