By Leah Jones, Features Editor
In his 1864 novel, “Notes From the Underground,” Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “The formula twice times two makes five is not without its attractions.” While this may be true, Ian Edwards, junior, computer science, and president of the Math Club at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Dr. David Covert, assistant teaching professor of math and computer science, see correct mathematics calculations as an integral part of a functioning society and engagement with the world.
“From something simple, such as telling time, or a more advanced application, such as estimating the total bags of concrete mix needed to make a slab, math has made such tasks achievable,” Edwards said. He also cited latitude and longitude and fuel calculations as other ways that math helps people in their everyday lives. “In short, math is the language of the universe. It helps us create and explain our environment.”
Covert, who has served as the faculty advisor for the Math Club since the Fall of 2016, agrees that math helps people engage with their environments in a more complex and dynamic manner. “Math is the language we humans use to understand and talk about the universe, and the abstraction in math breeds problem solving,” he said. “Neil deGrasse Tyson said it well: ‘There are people who say, “I’ll never need this math,” these trig identities from 10th grade or 11th grade, or maybe you never learned them. Here’s the catch. Whether or not you ever again use the math that you learned in school, the act of having learned the math established a wiring in your brain that didn’t exist before. And it’s the wiring in your brain that makes you the problem solver.’”
There are very different types of math that enable people to understand the world though. Edwards listed algebra, number theory, logic, differential equations, statistics, and calculus and analysis, citing statistics as his personal favorite.
“I became interested in mathematics my freshman year of high school when I began to understand the importance of math, despite the challenges it imposed,” Edwards continued. “Mathematics has provided me strategies for altering my thought process about the methods I use to solve my current problems, whether they be academic or outside of the classroom environment.”
Likewise, Covert discovered his interest in math at a young age. “I realized I had an interest in math when I was in middle school. My older brother was interested in learning tricks in mental arithmetic, and the tricks he showed me piqued my interest. I ended up liking math quite a bit—more than he did!—and majored in it as an undergraduate,” he said.
Covert continued, “One of the first things that attracted me to math was the exactness of it. Every problem seemed to have exactly one solution, and there were often convergent methods for arriving at the same answer. This absoluteness turned out to be an oversimplification, but it was one of the aspects of math I liked best as a beginning undergraduate student. … The fall after I graduated college, I went straight to … graduate school,” Covert said.
Edwards listed actuarial scientist, mathematics professor, logistician, and market research analyst as some possible career choices for students who choose to pursue a degree in mathematics.
“Math is a very versatile degree,” Covert continued. “Of course, there are many of the traditional options for a math degree. You can become a teacher, engineer, actuary, or statistician, for example. However, math (and computer science) is really about learning how to think abstractly and solve problems, and [those skills are] applicable to every field and every job. Beyond a career, it is deeply important for everyone to be mathematically and scientifically literate to be better able to understand the world and to make well-informed and evidence-based decisions.”
According to Edwards, the Math Club at UMSL was founded in 1968, with the earliest documented constitution dating back to 1976. The Math Club became a student chapter in the Mathematical Association of America on January 23, 1987. Edwards said that the president of the organization at the time, Al Stanger, who currently serves as an assistant teaching professor and the Math Academic Center Supervisor, received the chartering document.
Today, the Math Club remains active. The organization meets twice per month and they usually watch math-related videos or discuss mathematical surprises, including fractals, mental arithmetic with calendar dates, and graph coloring, according to Covert.
The club also holds events such as Pi Day and Fibonacci Day and invites students to discuss math-related topics and listen to presentations from speakers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) backgrounds.
In looking to the future, the Math Club has several goals. According to Covert, the organization hopes to acquaint students with each other and the faculty and to deepen members’ grasps of the underlying concepts of mathematics. They also hope to show students the various and interesting or useful applications of the science of math, and to offer Math Club members an opportunity to gain insight into the various fields of mathematics. Covert said that the Math Club also hopes to expose students to the opportunities available to them in these fields as well. Edwards said that they also hope to increase regular attendance at meetings, increase university awareness of the organization, and to have a “prosperous and well-populated Pi-Day.”
Though math is often considered a difficult and intimidating subject by students, Edwards said that, like learning a structured and logical language, students can learn math with time and effort. “Math is usually seen as a foreign language, and just like any language, some of the ‘grammar’ in math may not be the easiest to understand. However, it’s not impossible. With enough patience and practice, you’ll start understanding the ‘sentence structure’ (theorems, formulas). Then having ‘conversations’ (solving problems) becomes much easier. I hope that students, specifically those who view math as intimidating, can begin to speak the language of math and see the world from a new perspective,” he said.
While the formula twice times two makes five may not be without its attractions, the formula twice times two makes four offers more pragmatic and applicable advantages for students.
For more information on the Math Club, visit http://www.cs.umsl.edu/~covert/MathClub.html