Thursday, July 3, 2008

It all adds up

I spent most of last Friday afternoon performing feats of statistical wonder: median, mode, mean, min, max and standard deviation calculations. The mayor wants to make the building permit process more predictable (consistent) so the process improvement team needs data on how much variation there is in the various steps of the process. Fortunately we have the data. Most of it I could do with the built in aggregating functions in SQL, but I had to break out the VBA code to call Excel's median function from Access.

Since this blog is intended to, on occasions, provide advice about how educational programs can better prepare students for the exciting world of corporate information systems (I.S.), I thought I toss out a couple of thoughts regarding math and corporate I.S.

Personally, I didn't hate or love math in school. Generally I was indifferent to math. I knew I had to be decent at math because in college I was going to be studying Biology, Chemistry, Forestry, Economics, Business in preparation for a career in Epidemiology, Land Management, HR, Marketing, Computer Programming (how'd that happen?). Fortunately I have those math skills because as programmer I have been asked to do rigorous computational mathematics like calculating pi, calculating rocket trajectory, modeling weather patterns, rounding a 401(k) deduction to two decimal places.

Like so many other students my issue with math was relevancy - am I ever going to use this stuff. Earlier this year I was reading a book called Made to Stick, about how some ideas are memorable and other not, and came across this quote from a teacher who had grown weary of such questions:
My grade 9 students have difficulty appreciating the usefulness of the Standard Form of the equation of a line, prompting them to ask, "When are we ever going to need this?"

This question used to really bother me, and I would look, as a result, for justification for everything I taught. Now I say, "Never. You will never use this."

I then go on to remind them that people don't lift weights so that they will be prepared should, one day, [someone] knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.

MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING. It is a means to an end (for most people), not an end in itself.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick. New York: Random House, 2007 (page 194).
If you're like me, and you should be thankful you're not, you are immediately struck by the creativity in comparing math exercises with weight training for football. It's certainly true that the mental weight training my math teachers had me doing in the 1960's and 1970's sure paid off last Friday. As I pondered this post, however, it occurred to me that the analogy works in the other direction too. People who never get to play the game eventually stop lifting weights. Yes it's a means to an end, but if the end is 31 years away your going to lose a lot of folks.

Mathematically I got "into the game" in high school biology class. My project was to see if there was a statistically significant relationship between annual rainfall and the amount of growth in trees. The key was that I wasn't merely required to do the math, I had to figure out what math to do. I spent more time researching correlation than cutting up the tree (we had to go out into the forested countryside, which is now known as Mill Creek). Do you know how truly valuable it is to know that correlation and causality aren't the same things?

Okay, fast forward to today and we are thinking that another math requirement in high school is going to help raise standards. Might I suggest a class that isn't mathematical weightlifting, but instead encourages students to put math into practice. With apologies to those of you who love advanced mathematics, here is my quick list of useful math for corporate I.S. types:
  • interest rates, compound interest, rates of return, percentages, present value
  • marginal rates, rates of change
  • central tendency (mean, mode, median, standard deviation)
  • variable replacement, constants
  • date/time arithmetic
  • data types, numbering systems (binary, hex)
  • set theory, predicate logic, relational algebra (the basis for relational databases)
  • logic, story problem (can't solve a problem if you can't describe the problem)
  • relational operators (equal, greater than, less than or equal to, etc)
I can make a case for hiring an entry level programmer or analyst candidate who can demonstrate the use of these math concepts. It's certainly nice to have the advance math, and essential for many types of programming, but I have never been asked to determine the area of a paycheck.

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