When Are They Ever Gonna Use This?



It’s so typical. People joke about the old algebra problem about two trains heading from two different stations at different speeds and figuring out how long it takes for them to collide. Or there’s the question about Farmer Jake, who has forty more sheep than Farmer Bill; if Farmer Jake gives half his sheep to Farmer Bill and Farmer Bill gives one third of his sheep to Farmer Jake… you get the idea.

I’ve heard the acquiescence from moms who are just trying to get their kids into college. I’ve heard it from entrepreneurs in industries as disparate as acting, consulting, and wine-retailing. Heck, I’ve even heard it from a Harvard Education Doctorate in a panel on Common Core Standards.

…and if I hear one more adult validate the “when are we ever gonna use this?” objection, I’m going to throw something.

How ridiculously narcissistic and self-consumed are we as business people, teachers, and parents to assert—just because we don’t have a quick explanation for the relevance of a particular math, science, engineering or technology (STEM) topic—that it’s not necessary that students excel in those studies? When we allow students to skirt science, tech, and math courses because we didn’t happen to use trigonometry last week, we rob students of the opportunity to engage in and innovate within fields that are continually evolving.


Awesomeness at Purdue

Awesomeness at Purdue

Translating figures in Geometry or solving equations in Algebra II does not reflect the daily work of a mathematician—but you can’t become a mathematician if you haven’t mastered it. Drawing diagrams of molecules does not reflect the creative work of scientists at DuPont—but they had to learn to do so. Without mastering fundamentals like these, students are not equipped to so much as dabble in a STEM field. Why do we rob them the opportunity to discover those pursuits that they may love and in which they may actually excel?

Let a kid think she doesn’t need to know Biology and you may be postponing the cure for cancer, impeding the solution to world hunger, or interfering with her ability to grow food and feed her family. Accept that Bobby “just can’t do” Algebra and you may keep him out of Calculus—and then Engineering—and never witness a new braking system for your SUV or an entirely new transportation system that actually benefits the environment.

This isn’t merely an issue for today; this is an issue of the continuing viability and competitiveness of our country. Insisting that students succeed in STEM is integral to equipping students with longterm life skills. Increasing integration of technology in our lives is a given; consider the new skills you’ve had to learn as technologies have become accessible in the past fifteen years. As technology advances at what feels like an exponential rate, we must face that you and I may not have any idea what the specific STEM skills of a global citizen in 2030 are. It’s dangerous to pretend that the current knowledge requirements of our daily lives is predictive of needs twenty years from now.

I repeat: You Probably Don’t Know What Students Will Need To Know In The Future. I Don’t Either.

Requiring them to know less isn’t the answer. If anything, our responsibility to ourselves and to students is to push them to excel in studies of which they don’t see the relevance…even if we don’t yet see the relevance, either.

Your current intellectual context is not The Final Context. Please stop talking to students like it is.

Elizabeth King