Math at Work Monday: Colleen the Academic Advisor


For students these days, GPA is everything — so you’d better get it right! Today I interviewed Colleen Angaiak who has been an academic advisor for eight years. She helps kids calculate their GPA, set goals for the future, and much more. I found her math journey very interesting.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I work with undergraduate students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, to help them navigate the world of higher education. My primary task is to help students choose and register for classes each semester, but because our office focuses on Alaska Native and rural Alaskan students, we provide what we call comprehensive advising. This means that we help students with financial aid, including completing the FAFSA and applying for scholarships; deciding on housing and dining options; assisting with career development, including resume writing, applying for jobs, and long-term planning; and social and personal support as well.

When do you use basic math in your job?

The primary area in which we use math is financial aid. Federal and institutional requirements for financial aid eligibility include the GPA (grade point average) and a completion rate. We help students calculate their future (or potential) GPA as well as their completion rates. This primarily involves finding an average (GPA) and a percentage (completion rate). In addition, we use very basic math (addition and subtraction) to help students determine how much they owe the university and how much payment plan payments will be (balance due divided by the number of payments). When we talk with other university departments, we are sometimes asked for simple statistics, such as the persistence rate of our students or number of graduates. Sometimes we receive that information from our department of Institutional Research, but other times we gather the data ourselves.

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

I almost always use a calculator for computing GPA and completion rate as well as determining payments or balance due. This is because I want to be completely accurate when giving information to a student. In addition, I use the calculator on my computer and show the student as I do it so they can see how I reach the figure I share with them. Some GPA calculations are complicated, such as when a student is repeating a class and the new grade will replace the old one in the GPA calculation. For this and a few other instances, our university provides an online tool to determine GPA, and I do use this tool as well.

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

Our office takes pride in the fact that we make every effort to answer as many of a student’s questions as possible without sending them to multiple departments. Because I have the tools to calculate GPA and completion rate, I can help a student right in my office rather than sending them off to the financial aid office. And because I understand how these numbers are calculated, I can do a better job of explaining to students what they need to do next and how long it will take them to meet the standards set by the university or their own goals.

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

I’m not entirely comfortable with math, but averages and percentages are calculations I’ve worked with before. My previous job included teaching GED preparation to adult students, including math, and that experience increased both my math skills and my math confidence. I am very thankful, though, to have calculators and online tools to assist me, and I do sometimes check will colleagues to determine the accuracy of the math I’ve done. I never help students with math homework or taxes, even if they beg!

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

I went to a VERY small high school that offered very little math. I was part of a group of 3-5 students who were on the college prep math track, and we took Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, with Geometry and Algebra II being nearly independent study (the teacher was in another room teaching a larger group and checked in on us 2-3 times per class). I enjoyed Algebra and really disliked Geometry.

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?

Averages and percentages are pretty commonly used in life. Like I said, my previous experience teaching GED math helped a lot, and I didn’t need a lot of review to pick up what I need for my current position. There is a learning curve with GPA calculation, especially when dealing with special cases and predictions based on multiple possible outcomes, but I do think high school Algebra would probably be enough for anyone attempting to do the math I am required to do.

Anything else you want to mention?

When we talk to high school students who are planning to attend college, we always encourage them to take as much math as they can while in high school, and to not take long breaks between math classes. The more you use math, the less you lose it!

Interested in learning more about Colleen’s work? Ask your questions in the comments section.

Photo Credit: BdwayDiva1 via Compfight cc

Get the Party Started: Celebrate Pi Day!


If you have the kind of Facebook or Twitter newsfeed that I have, you have likely figured out that March 14, 2015 is pretty darned special. And at 9:26 a.m., there’s even more reason to celebrate. That exact time is the ultimate for us math geeks who are also fond of π. If you write this date and time using only numbers (and strategically placing a decimal point to the right of 3), you get:


And that’s the longest expression of pi we’ve seen in 100 years on Pi Day.

So forget making pies. We here at Math for Grownups are going to be celebrating bigger! And better! From today through midnight on Pi Day (that’s this Saturday, by the way), you’ll have a chance to win great prizes!

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 1.26.59 PMπ Plates

I’m thrilled to partner with Uncommon Goods, one of my most favorite online retailers for unique gifts and crafts, to offer one lucky winner a set of these clever pie plates. (“i eight sum pi,” they say.)



I designed this shirt just for this celebration. You’ll want to remember this momentous occasion — you know, share it with your grandchildren. The t-shirt is 100% cotton, and you can order it in standard or ladies cut.



Pi Day MugMug

Have a little Pi Day with your coffee or tea? Sip away, while letting your math geek flag fly!



Math for Grownups and Math for Writers

Of course, some lucky winner will take home one of my books Math for Grownups or Math for Writers.

Free Online Learning

And last, but not least, I’ll be offering one person the opportunity to take my new online course, “Stats for Writers,” at no charge.

So how can you win? If you already receive my newsletter, you are already in the drawing. If you’re haven’t signed up? Just complete the form below. After midnight on March 14, I’ll have my computer randomly select the winners. I’ll post their names here and contact them directly.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for my bi-weekly newsletter, and get a bonus, just because! My guide to overcoming math anxiety: Multiply Your Math Moxie: A Painless Guide to Overcoming Math Anxiety.

Let’s get this Pi Day party started! Sign up below!


Math at Work Monday: Amy the Pastry Chef


Yummy, yummy in my tummy… the old saying goes. Amy Hassler has been a pastry chef for more than 10 years, and just interviewing her made my mouth water. What a fun job she has!  I guess she’s a great example of someone who needs to know math to do her job and a great example of when math can be fun and have big rewards… like a tasty apple pie at the end!

Can you explain what you do for a living?

During my career, I’ve worked for restaurants, retail bakeries, country clubs and even grocery stores. I make breads and pastries, usually from scratch, decorating cakes and cookies, as well as making candy.

When do you use basic math in your job?

The math I use ranges from the very basic: using measurements like volume, weight, time and temperature, to more common: figuring out food costs in order to determine appropriate price points, scaling recipes, converting measurements when making substitutions, and determining how much of each item needs to be produced in order to meet demand.

Most professional pastry recipes are written by measuring ingredients by weight instead of by volume in order to make scaling more foolproof. For example, if you ask ten different people to measure 1-3/4 cup of flour, you will likely get ten different actual amounts of flour, due to the amount of air left in the measuring cups they used. Depending on whether someone packs the flour or scoops or pours into the cup, each of these results in slightly different amounts of flour. When you work in the small scale, like a home baker does, these differences might not be significant enough to notice. But when instead of making 2 dozen cookies, you’re making 40 dozen, suddenly that discrepancy can make a big difference in the consistency of the finished product. So instead of measuring by volume, we measure by weight. 12 ounces of flour is much easier to multiply by 20 on the fly than 1 3/4 cups!

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

Calculators may be found in some kitchens, but it’s not common, due to the difficulty of keeping them free of contamination while working with food, and it’s difficult to wash a calculator or sanitize it thoroughly once it’s become dirty. We use tools like thermometers and scales for our measurements, though, and it’s very important to keep those tools properly calibrated. Often times, as ovens and other cooking equipment get older, their temperature calibrations may be off, and you need to make adjustments to time or temperature settings to offset the difference. Similarly, a mis-calibrated thermometer can ruin recipes using yeast, chocolate or boiled sugar as all of these behave differently at different temperatures. If a thermometer is off by even just a single degree, it can result in chocolate candies that won’t harden properly.

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

Math equals accuracy! In the food business, food costs can be the difference between a thriving business and bankruptcy. Always knowing how much it costs to produce a finished product based on the cost of the ingredients you use is necessary to make sure that the business is charging the correct price for that product. And proper measurements, including properly scaled recipes when increasing/decreasing batches, means less waste. I’ve seen enormous amounts of food go to waste because someone couldn’t bother to figure out how many trays of cookies they’ll need to fill an order properly!

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

I’m very comfortable with “everyday” math. When it’s used in practical applications, it’s easy for me to grasp. Theoretical math is a whole different story!

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

I took an Algebra and a Geometry course in high school, and I barely passed. I was horrible at it and found it very difficult to see the usefulness of it at the time. It wasn’t until I was in college that I gained an appreciation for it.

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?

Luckily for me, my culinary degree included a math course designed specifically for food service. It focused on the types of tasks we see most often: scaling recipes (taking a recipe written for 2 dozen cookies and changing it to make 10 dozen, or one for 4 pies into one for just one pie), substitutions and conversions of recipe ingredients or measurements, calculating food costs, calculating supplies based on final production target, etc.
I’m pretty sure I’d have figured all of these things out on my own eventually but having the class helped and made it easier.

Anything else you want to mention?

I heard the jokes about pastry chefs a lot in culinary school, and I’ve found it to be true in the real world as well: there is an enormous personality difference between pastry chefs and the standard “culinary” chef. A chef making a soup or pasta dish, for example, can change his mind halfway through the cooking process and add ingredients, or change cooking methods (assuming the chef is skilled enough). Pastry does not work that way. Pastry chefs tend to be quite a bit more scientific and calculating because our products must be perfect before the baking process begins, or it will be ruined. A chef is able to taste his soup and add salt, but if my pie crust needs salt, I have to start over! This difference in styles means different personality types are definitely drawn to one specialty over the other.

If you have questions for Amy, post them in the comments section. In the meantime, go bake a cake… with correct measurements, of course.

Photo Credit: Canadacow via Compfight cc

Algorithms: Good for machines, bad for people

Algorithms: Good for machines, bad for people

This headline is a lie. It’s not that I think algorithms are bad. They’re not. Honestly, I think that’s how many of us move through our days without killing ourselves or someone else. We habitually take the medications prescribed by our doctors; we cook our eggs (and avoid salmonella); we follow the steps for safely backing our cars out of the driveway; we put on our socks before our shoes.

Even certain mathematical algorithms are very useful, like the order of operations (or PEMDAS).

But in the end, I think that dictated algorithms are not so great for people, especially people who are learning a new skill, and especially when the algorithm has little to no meaning or context.

Don’t know what an algorithm is? Check out my earlier post defining algorithms. 

People Aren’t Machines

There are many different educational philosophies that drive how we teach math. For generations, teachers worked under the assumption that young minds were tabula rasas or blank slates. Some educators took this to mean that we were empty pitchers, waiting to be filled with information.

This is how teaching algorithms got such a strong-hold on our educational system. Teachers were expected to introduce material to students, who were seen as completely ignorant of any part of the process. Through instruction, students learned step-by-step processes, with very little context.

In recent years, however, our understanding of neurology and psychology has deepened. We understand, for example, that children’s personalities are somewhat set at birth. And that their brains develop in predictable ways. We are also beginning to realize that certain types of learning and teaching promote deeper understanding.

The result is a better sense of students as individuals. Instead of a class filled with homogeneous little minds, we know now that kids (and grownups) are wildly different–in the way they digest information and approach problems. (To be fair, this is closer to John Locke’s original theory of tabula rasa, in which he states that the purpose of education is to create intellect, not memorize facts.)

In terms of a moral, there’s not much I recommend in this Pink Floyd video, but I can certainly identify with the kids’ anger at being treated like cogs in the educational system. Besides, it’s cool.

A Case for Critical Thinking

Certainly critical thinking is not completely absent in the teaching of algorithms. It’s marvelous when kids (and adults) make connections within the steps of a mathematical process. But critical thinking is much more likely, when the process is more open-ended. Give kids square tiles to help them understand quadratic equations, and they’ll likely start factoring without help. Let students play around with addition of multi-digit numbers, and they’ll start figuring out place value on their own.

You can’t beat that kind of learning.

See, when someone tells us something, our brains may or may not really engage. But when we’re already engaged in the discovery process, we’re much more likely to make big connections and remember them longer.

That’s not to say that learning algorithms is bad. But think of the way you might add two multi-digit numbers without a calculator. Instead of stacking them up and adding from right to left (remembering to carry), you might do something completely different, like add up all of the hundreds and tens and ones — and add again. In many ways, you’re still following the algorithm, but in a deconstructed way.

And in the end, who cares what process you follow–as long as you get to the correct answer and feel confident.

Teaching Algorithms is Easier, Sort Of

So if discovering processes is so much better, why does much of our educational system still teach algorithms? Well, because it’s more efficient in a lot of ways. It’s easier to stand in front of a group of kids and teach a step-by-step process. It’s harder–and noisier–to let kids work in groups, using manipulatives to answer open-ended questions. It might even take longer.

But I say that based on what we now know about kids’ personalities and brains, we’re not doing them much good with lecture-style classes. So in the long run, it’s easier to teach with discovery-based methods. Kids remember the information longer and get great neurological exercise. This allows for many more connections. At that point, the teacher is more of a coach than anything else.

In the end, we all use algorithms. But isn’t it better when we decide what steps to follow, through trial and error, a gut instinct or discovering the basic concepts underlying the process? That’s where we have a big edge over machines. After all, humans are inputting the algorithms that machines use.

Photo Credit: teclasorg via Compfight cc

Math at Work Monday: Matt the Quality Control Specialist


Quality in our car parts is important, would’t you say? I don’tknow about you, but I don’t want to drive down the road using mis-manufactured car parts. Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Case who has been a with American Honda Motor Company for more than 15 years. He is a quality control specialist. Let’s hear about how he uses math at work.

Can you explain what you do for a living? 

I work as a quality control specialist for American Honda Motor Company, correcting supplier and packager errors. A supplier error results when we receive a notification from a supplier or dealer that a car parthas been mis-manufactured, meaning it wasn’t produced to Honda specifications, or that their is an error in the part’s packaging. My job is to investigate problems stated by dealer analysts and report my findings to them. I also give the recommendation for how to handle the mis-manufactured parts and packaging errors.

When do you use basic math in your job? 

I use math when creating end-of-month reports using Excel. I also have to measure parts when investigating the claims. I compare the part to the manufacturer’s drawing detail by detail. I need to know how to find diameters and measure in millimeters as well as use calipers. At times I have to convert mm into inches.

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

I use Excel, calculators, and of course, a computer. I use a multiplication formula on my computer to do conversions.

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

IMG_1659Math helps me ensure that parts are acceptable. If I didn’t have basic math skills, I wouldn’t know how to read the manufacturer’s drawing and compare it to the actual measurements of the part.

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

I feel comfortable with basic math like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. I’m not comfortable using algebra or more advanced math. Math doesn’t make me nervous at work or anything.

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

In high school, I pretty much took basic math classes. During junior and senior year, I went to a trade school (Miami Valley Career Technology Center) where my math correlated with my trade which was engine rebuilding and machining. I can’t say that I liked math, but I did feel that I was competent in it.

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 already knew how to do the math that I use at work.  Going to the trade school helped me learn how to use the tools that I use in my current position.

Anything else you want to mention?

Even though math may not be the most enjoyable subject, it is important to pay attention and understand the basics of math in order to further your skills as an adult and have a career.

Photo Credit: NiePhotography via Compfight cc

Interested in finding out more about this type of work?  Let me know any questions you have for Matt.