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Major mathematics misconceptions

7 November 2019
Myles Cramer talks with students at an Exploration-U event organized by the college's Office of Science Outreach at the State College Area High School. Credit: Tim Gleason

Often, when I tell someone I’m majoring in mathematics, they assume I am destined—like all math majors—for a career in education or accounting. Although I am pursuing a concurrent major in secondary education and planning to become a high school math teacher, many math majors’ future careers involve more than just crunching numbers or teaching. As someone who is passionate about both math and education, there are a few misconceptions about math majors I hope to debunk—simplistic notions that don’t accurately convey what it means to study math, a diverse and exciting subject rich with opportunity, in today’s world.

Major misconception: Math majors only study math

One look at the many different options in Penn State’s Mathematics program quickly reveals how varied a math major’s course work and potential career paths can be. I initially intended to follow the Actuarial Mathematics path to become a professional actuary, using statistics and applied mathematics to establish the likelihood of certain events, typically in the insurance industry. It is a lucrative field and I would have been employable with just a bachelor’s degree. I realized, however, that I would find a career in education to be more fulfilling because teachers work directly with people and make a tangible difference in students’ lives every day. Now I’m taking the Systems Analysis path, which is intended for students with interests in other disciplines beyond math. I chose biology as my area of application, which is a subject I discovered I enjoy after taking two physiology courses at Penn State. Every option within the Mathematics program prepares students to connect math to their future careers: The Computational Mathematics path emphasizes computers and programming; the Applied and Industrial Mathematics path teaches applications and concepts needed to solve problems in industry; and there are still more options to accommodate other interests!

Major misconception: Math majors are just number crunchers

Myles Cramer guides students as they use small, programmable robots called Ozobots at “Soaring Into the Future,”  a superhero-themed STEAM event organized by Waynesburg Central Elementary School. Credit: Edith Woods

If you believe problem-solving is a chalkboard covered with computations, then you’re guilty of believing another outdated misconception. My math professors have taught us to use software like Mathematica and MATLAB to perform time-consuming computations effortlessly, allowing us to take a step back and understand what’s happening at the conceptual level—as well as to focus on math’s many real-world applications—instead of getting bogged down in computations. One professor used Mathematica to emphasize new concepts and reveal the underlying mechanics of calculus, and another taught us basic MATLAB commands for a project on code-breaking and ciphers. The software doesn’t necessarily make the math easier, but it does simplify the problem-solving process and eliminate computational errors. These skills are crucial for real-world mathematical applications where there’s more at stake than just “math for math’s sake,” especially when massive amounts of data make timely calculations by hand virtually impossible.

Major misconception: Math majors have limited options

A math degree opens many doors after graduation, and there are plenty of opportunities at Penn State for professional development and sharing our love of math: There is the Math Club, of course, as well as other clubs for statistics, actuarial science, and math education. Getting involved with these organizations can either reaffirm a student’s desire to pursue their chosen field or help them realize they should consider a different path. One of the first clubs I joined on campus was the Actuarial Science Club, where I had the opportunity to meet professionals in the industry and learn about their daily work life. I quickly realized this was not the right career for me, and I adjusted my educational plans accordingly—saving myself much time and frustration before ever taking any actuarial science classes. I believe it’s critical for students to get involved with these organizations, as I did, to explore the many options available to them.

Major message: Find your passion and make a difference

Myles Cramer guides students as they use small, programmable robots called Ozobots at “Soaring Into the Future,”  a superhero-themed STEAM event organized by Waynesburg Central Elementary School. Credit: Edith Woods

When choosing a major, it’s important to find an enjoyable topic that offers flexibility and engaging opportunities both in college and beyond. For me, the math major satisfies both of these criteria, especially when paired with a concurrent major in secondary education. I grew up in a rural school district with limited resources, and I saw firsthand how significant an impact a dedicated teacher can make on a student’s future. I hope to help students discover their passion and prepare them for success—just as my high school STEM teachers did for me. When you discover that calling for yourself, you’ll know you’ve found the right path, and you just might be surprised at how many misconceptions you’ll shatter along the way.