# A Math Professor Makes the Case for Revisiting Algebra as an Adult

## Skip the gym membership and enroll in a class

It’s time again for New Year’s resolutions — eating healthier, getting in shape, or kicking a bad habit. Unfortunately, statistics suggest you probably won’t succeed — as many as 80% of people fail to meet their resolutions by mid-February.

But there’s something you can do to up your odds. If you haven’t landed on your resolution yet, or you’re looking for something outside the norm, try dedicating your 2020 to brushing up on a discipline that will advance your career goals in the new decade: math.

What better way to improve your life than with a resolution that cultivates the skills *Forbes* suggests for the future workforce? In its recent list of the top 10 soft skills for the future of work, *Forbes* included change management, storytelling, and building communication skills — all talents math can enhance.

Math teaches the concept of change and consequently fosters the highly desired skill of “change management,” the quality that helps employees respond to change effectively. The mathematical subject of calculus is, in fact*,* the language of change.

The two key concepts of calculus, the derivative and the integral, measure instantaneous change and total change. This means that if Apple produces 100 iPhones, the derivative helps determine the cost to produce the 101st iPhone. On a chilly night, if you leave the sink dripping at a rate of 2 milliliters per minute to keep your pipes from bursting, the integral helps determine the total amount of water that will appear on your utility bill.

The more than 800,000 high schoolers taking calculus already have a foundation in the concept of change and are beginning to understand the critical importance of the skill. But since calculus hinges on algebra, this new year, let’s encourage our middle schoolers to embrace the power of the unknown in the form of the variable *x*. The very word — variable — suggests change. Gaining familiarity with this changing quantity will set students up for success in the long run. And while we are encouraging our students, we can also challenge ourselves.

Consider skipping the gym membership if you don’t plan to actually use it, and instead enroll in an algebra class at your local community college to brush up on your math skills. Learning how to factor polynomials and multiply exponents will set you up for success not only in the classroom, but also with the broader concept of change.

The past helps us understand that math and storytelling go hand in hand. We can look to the 16th century when the mathematicians Niccolò Tartaglia and Gerolamo Cardano broke promises and hurled insults as they waged a personal war about, of all things, the solution to a particular type of equation. It turns out that the very contemporary issue of plagiarism caused problems then, just as it does now.

After her death in 1987, Clare Boothe Luce, a celebrated playwright, congresswoman, and U.S. ambassador to Italy, gave nearly $70 million (roughly $159 million in 2020 dollars) to establish a fund “to encourage women to enter, study, graduate, and teach” in the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics. Despite having no known connection to or interest in what are now known as the STEM fields, Luce challenged women to enter into and excel in more commonly male-dominated fields. Her work funds faculty positions and provides undergraduates with opportunities to pursue a summer research project in math or other STEM-related fields. These stories helped shape the discipline as we know it today.

If you work toward mastering a mathematical idea with a goal of teaching it to others, you not only enhance your own understanding of the concept, but you also build communication skills in the process. By explaining an idea, you gain a more solid understanding of it. You also boost your own confidence and gain a friend in the process. This collegial approach to learning math also builds community and can foster what *Forbes* identifies as the “right company culture.”

Math offers possibility. So I invite you to resolve to rethink the role of math in your life. Instead of tuning out when a colleague shows a graph, invest in something bigger. Encourage the students in your life to avoid slinking down in their chairs at school thinking “this is just another math class.” Use this new year to reach for the unexpected gains of studying a transformative discipline and leveraging its daily benefits.