Why Algebra Is Everyone's Friend

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By Martha Stillman

For many adults, algebra is that subject they struggled through in high school and college, then gladly abandoned as they pursued their non-science or technology careers. But here's the truth: algebra is everywhere in our everyday lives.

It is impossible to step outside or inside our houses, let alone go to work every day, without encountering the practical effects of algebra. Understanding the basics of algebra is a pretty critical career skill in today's data-driven economy. It's certainly not something you should ignore.

Consider these situations next time you doubt algebra's value:

Have you ever taken out a loan? If so, you had to pay interest on the loan. The formulas used to calculate that interest are built using the language of algebra. Businesses have to finance day-to-day operations as well as long term investments, like building a new factory or plant, and they do complex algebraic calculations to decide the lowest cost method of financing.

Are you saving money? If so, you are expecting a return on your money, and it will no doubt be compounded. This is calculated using the rules of algebra. Businesses do the same thing when they manage their investment portfolios.

Have you ever landscaped your backyard or done home improvements? If so, you had to figure out how much area to cover (with paint, with grass, or with weed inhibitor, for example) and how much it would cost for different alternatives. The calculations to cost out the alternatives and figure out how much you need to purchase are done using algebraic rules.

Do you need to make sales projections for next year and the year after? Almost certainly you’ll start out by drawing a line through your sales levels for the past few years and project that into the future. Once again, algebraic rules (in this case, for developing linear equations) will be the ticket.

Have you ever had to adjust a cooking recipe for a different number of people than the recipe was written for? You need to proportionally change the ingredients to match the needed servings. Restaurants have the same challenge. In both cases, algebra is used do the conversions.

Have you ever traveled abroad? If so, you probably had to convert some of your US dollars to the local currency of the country you were traveling in. Companies have to do something very similar if they have any foreign locations for sales or manufacturing or if they purchase any supplies from abroad or sell to any customers in other countries.  These conversions use algebra.

Clearly, algebra is the answer to not only problems in the mathematics classroom, but to many processes involved in your everyday life. A lot of people who may have struggled with math as children discover they are adept at algebra as adults, so it's worth revisiting. It can pay off in surprising ways in every facet of your life.

If you need an algebra brush up, here are three sites that can help:

(Dr. Martha K. Stillman is an Associate Professor in Mathematics in the School of Science and Technology. She has bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physics and a PhD in religion. She had an extended career in the banking and marketing sectors and has been teaching mathematics and statistics at American Public University for the past five years.)

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