Don't let Pi Day be a missed opportunity


Pi Day is an annual celebration of the importance of mathematics, represented by  the always interesting irrational, infinite, non-repeating constant indicated by the Greek letter ‘∏’ that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Calculations with pi normally use 3.14 as a stand-in, though the number has been calculated to trillions of decimal places.


Pi Day has been steadily gaining steam since it was first (officially) celebrated in 1988 by physicist Larry Shaw at the San Francisco Exploratorium science museum. Internet communities have picked up on the day - Google even celebrates Pi Day with its own doodle - and in 2009 the US House of Representatives officially recognized Pi Day by passing House Resolution 224.


The holiday has not seen much development in Hutchinson County. Reporters could find no events or school activities (most of Hutchinson County’s schools are currently out for Spring Break) happening to celebrate the event. 


This year’s Pi Day falls shortly after Texas’ infamous move to cut an Algebra II requirement for high school graduations, a continuation of years of degrading academic standards across the state. Probable future Texas Governor Greg Abbott defended that move by telling BNH reporters that “Not once in my entire life have I had a use for Algebra II.”


Stanley Maxwell, an instructor at West Texas High School in Stinnett who teaches higher level math courses like Calculus and Algebra II weighed in on the importance of math in today’s society.


“[Greg Abbott] himself may not have personally used the math," said Maxwell, "but the math has influenced his life in every situation that he has been in. Nothing that he does happens without math.”


Maxwell said that the average person might not use math daily, but math does influence their daily life “tremendously,” and affirmed that even those who use little math in their routine still benefit from learning the disciplines.


“One of the things we do is just teach logical reasoning," Maxwell said. "Algebra especially is very sequential. You start with your problem and you have to do a certain thing to it and there’s a reason why you can do that. The logic involved in that whole process is something that they will use the rest of their lives.


“Learning how to identify the problem, process it, figure out what you can do with it, how can you find a positive outcome - things like that. They might not ever work a job that is math based, but the kind of thinking that’s involved is in every walk of life.”


Children should be engaged with math “at birth” according to Maxwell. “You start making it fun the moment that they are born.” But he cautions against old-school methods: “Look for ways of making it fun,” he explains, “like flash cards are one of the worst things you can do, probably, because that’s just boring.”


He says that even early on you can count spoons or erasers to make it more exciting “than just the pencil-paper thing.”


With a growing shortage of American kids involved in engineering and other math-based work, US schools should be under more pressure than ever to teach students the importance and application of higher math skills. Schools can not do the job alone, though, and parents are the integral missing link.


“Parents have to find math - and basically education in general to be important. We put too much emphasis on having fun and enjoying life that school is put on the back burner. ...  the Jr. High and High School years are when the foundation is laid.”


“We need to see that math is important and that math is something that you have to work at; something you have to do on a daily basis to be successful with it. Where they are headed in life depends on how much time they are willing to put in right now on math and the other topics that we teach in high school,” said Maxwell.


“A lot of what goes on at Phillips and Agrium are very much math based and engineering based because of the products that they are producing.”


Another problem facing the next generation of engineering students is a huge gender gap. Girls are grossly underrepresented in high level engineering courses in universities.West Texas High School graduate and current WTAMU Pre-Engineering student Matthew Goodale told the News-Herald that out of a class of 20 engineering students, two of them  might be female. “At most.”


“Girls are just as capable of doing the math - and a lot of times more capable,” says Maxwell, “than the boys are - but from early on they’ve been taught that math is a boy thing and English is a girl thing, and they’ve been encouraged to be successful in that area.”


“The secret there is that parents and educators et cetera have to encourage the girls to take a math and let them know they are just as strong as the boys and just as capable of thinking through high-level and difficult situations.”


Goodale says to all students who might be facing difficulties with math or math anxiety, “Math is really not that scary. You’re basically finding new ways to organize the infinite number of possibilities of numbers we have and find connections between them. 


“Sometimes what we are taught,” he continues, “we may not always use, but there’s always a good thing in learning something different, even if you never use it again. It may strengthen your brain; it may help you see things in a different light.”