Math in the Real World (or, I Know What I Did This Summer)

After almost two weeks in New Orleans this summer, I now excitedly carry in my pockets evidentiary examples, responses… just waiting for the the first person to ask that ubiquitous question all math teachers hear:  “When will I ever use this?”

I spent this time in the Crescent City working with several Not-for-Profit groups who partner with The Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans.  The overarching goal of this umbrella organization is to teach and enable 16 – 24 year-olds who have either dropped out of school, spent time in the court system, or just want a new start with “environmentally restorative service projects” that ultimately lead to gainful employment in areas of societal need.

In the words of CCGNO:

“CCGNO programs take a service-learning approach to workforce development and community restoration. Our Corpsmembers play a central role in designing, proposing and implementing community service projects while learning skills that prepare them for careers in the emerging green economy. While promoting environmentally restorative practices, CCGNO programs seek to engage those young adults that have historically been disconnected from college and career opportunities.”**

So what did I do?  In a nutshell, I assisted Education Programs Coordinator Joey Kuchler and several program leaders in developing specific math curricula germane to their project needs.  For example, some of the Corpsmembers* will be learning construction so basic math skills are key.  (Fractions?  Yes, in construction you work with ruler readings to an eighth of an inch).  Other topics such as customary conversions, proportions and percents are just the beginning — remember triangles?  The Pythagorean Theorem and special right triangle calculations are often applied but trig ratios are especially necessary in construction math.

One morning, I accompanied Crew Leader Amber Parker of the Alliance for Affordable Energy to observe the weatherization process of an older New Orleans home.  Corpsmembers were not present but I had an inside look at the typical skills required to assess the needs of homeowners in the way of energy efficiency, and the math involved.  All windows and doors must be precisely measured (there’s your eighth-of-an-inch again) and after that, can you calculate what percent of each wall is window?  I do not have the background to detail what goes into this process next (it involves rating appliances, a tarp over the door with some blowing device, and something about negative/positive ions) but final calculations are made using software and ultimate energy needs are assessed, along with estimates of repairs and energy savings. 

[Side note: Those of you reading this who say, “Well who doesn’t know how to calculate percentages and use fractions?” should be thanking your math teachers right now.  Go ahead…I’ll wait….  Several Crew Leaders told me they were shocked as to how few Corpsmembers possessed even basic math skills.  Even those with GEDs and high school diplomas had almost no math skills, they said.  As a math teacher in Roswell, Georgia I can tell you with confidence that this lack of basic math skills is not confined to the educational system of Louisiana (elitists!) — I see these deficiencies every day!  Even with AP students!  Students fear the fractions, the word problems and the decimals so much that they avoid them (again, EVEN AP students) to the point they are innumerate.  But I digress.]   

My hope is to stay in touch with these dynamic leaders and follow the growth of the newest Corpsmembers in the programs.  Not only do I feel useful in this endeavor, I am, as I said, able to start the year fresh with better answers to students’ questions, even if they won’t believe me or listen.

 *Corpsmembers are the 16 – 24 year-olds participating in these programs.

**The Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans recently received accolades in The New York Times in the article “New Orleans Program Links Green Jobs, Youth Development”


  1. Kudos and thank you for volunteering your time in New Orleans. Our young people have been so frustrated, asking for ways to understand these math concepts in their community green projects, so they will most definitely reap the benefits of your work. They never thought they would be doing trig on these green jobs! The Crew Leaders/Teachers will be more equipped with the binder of enrichment lessons. You clearly have the gift for service-learning! In addition, your work crunching numbers with Program Managers making their outcomes/results sing in their grant applications will help sustain this work. May your tribe increase.


  2. Yay…you rock Anna. I guess I never thought I’d be using Math when I grew up either. But for some weird reason I was one of those kids who actually liked math. I like to find answers, I guess. I really enjoyed your insights while you were here and would say that your binder will come in very handy once we start with our curriculum writing!

    Thank you so much for all your time here. You are the best math nerd I ever knew ;)



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