Math Drives Careers: Author Oscar Fernandez

We know that mathematics can solve problems in the classroom, but what can it do for your business? Oscar Fernandez, author of Everyday Calculus, takes a look at how knowledge of numbers can help your bottom line.

Why You Should Be Learning Math Even If You Don’t Need It for Your Job

I want to tell you a short story about epic triumph in the midst of adversity. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but hear me out.

A couple of years ago, I approached Boston Scientific—an S&P 500 component—with a crazy idea: let me and a team of students from Wellesley College (a liberal arts college for women) and Babson College (a business school) do consulting work for you. It was a crazy idea because what could I—a mathematician who knew nothing about their business—and some students—who hadn’t even graduated yet—possibly offer the company? Plenty, it turns out, all thanks to our common expertise: mathematics.

Mathematics, often depicted in movies as something pocket-protector-carrying people with less than stellar social skills do, is actually quite ubiquitous. I’d even say that mathematicians are the unsung heroes of the world. Alright, that’s a bit of hyperbole. But think about it. Deep in the catacombs of just about every company, there are mathematicians. They work in low light conditions, hunched over pages of calculations stained with days-old coffee, and think up ways to save the company money, optimize their revenue streams, and make their products more desired. You may never notice their efforts, but you’ll surely notice their effects. That recent change in the cost of your flight? Yep, it was one of us trying to maximize revenue. The reason that UPS truck is now waking you up at 6 a.m.? One of us figured out that the minimum cost route passes through your street.

But we’re do-good people too. We help optimize bus routes to get children to school faster and safer. We’ve spent centuries modelling the spread of disease. More recently, we’ve even reduced crime by understanding how it spreads. That’s why I was confident that my team and I could do something useful for Boston Scientific. Simply put, we knew math.

We spent several weeks pouring over data the company gave us. We tried everything we could think of to raise their revenues from certain products. Collectively, we were trained in mathematics, economics, computer science, and psychology. But nothing worked. It seemed that we—and math—had failed.

Then, with about three weeks left, I chanced upon an article from the MIT Technology Review titled “Turning Math Into Cash.” It describes how IBM’s 200 mathematicians reconfigured their 40,000 salespeople over a period of two years and generated $1 billion in additional revenue. Wow. The mathematicians analyzed the company’s price-sales data using “high-quantile modeling” to predict the maximum amount each customer was willing to spend, and then compared that to the actual revenue generated by the sales teams. IBM then let these mathematicians shuffle around salespeople to help smaller teams reach the theoretical maximum budget of each customer. Genius, really.

I had never heard of quantile regression before, and neither had my students, but one thing math does well is to train you to make sense of things. So we did some digging. We ran across a common example of quantile modelling: food expenditure vs. household income. There’s clearly a relationship, and in 1857 researchers quantified the relationship for Belgian households. They produced this graph:

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That red line is the linear regression line—the “best fit to the data.” It’s useful because the slope of the line predicts a 50 cent increase in food expenditure for a $1 increase in household income. But what if you want information about the food expenditure of the top 5% of households, or the bottom 20%? Linear regression can’t give you that information, but quantile regression can. Here’s what you get with quantile regression:

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The red line is the linear regression line, but now we also have various quantile regression lines. To understand what they mean let’s focus on the top-most dashed line, which is the 95th percentile line. Households above this line are in the 95th percentile (or 0.95 quantile) of food expenditure. Similarly, households below the bottom-most line are in the 5th percentile (or 0.05 quantile) of food expenditure. Now, if we graph the slopes of the lines as a function of the percentile (also called “quantile”), we get:

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(The red line is the slope of the linear regression line; it doesn’t depend on the quantile, which is why it’s a straight line.) Notice that the 0.95 quantile (95th percentile) slope is about 0.7, whereas the 0.05 quantile (5th percentile) slope is about 0.35. This means that for every $1 increase in household income, this analysis predicts that households in the 95th percentile of food expenditure will spend 70 cents more, whereas households in the 5th percentile will spend only 35 cents more.

Clearly quantile regression is powerful stuff. So, my team and I went back and used quantile regression on the Boston Scientific data. We came up with theoretical maximum prices that customers could pay based on the region the product was sold in. As with IBM, we identified lots of potential areas for improvement. When my students presented their findings to Boston Scientific, the company took the work seriously and was very impressed with what a few students and one professor could do. I can’t say we generated $1 billion in new revenue for Boston Scientific, but what I can say is that we were able to make serious, credible recommendations, all because we understood mathematics. (And we were just a team of 5 working over a period of 12 weeks!)

April is Mathematics Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “math drives careers.” After my Boston Scientific experience and after reading about IBM’s success, I now have a greater appreciation of this theme. Not only can mathematics be found in just about any career, but if you happen to be the one to find it (and use it), you could quickly be on the fast track to success. So in between celebrating March Madness, Easter, Earth Day, and April 15th (I guess you’d only celebrate if you’re due a tax refund), make some time for math. It just might change your career.

Photo by Richard Howard.

Photo by Richard Howard.

Oscar Fernandez is the author of Everyday Calculus. He is assistant professor of mathematics at Wellesley College.

6 Free to Low-Cost Resources to Teach You Calculus in a Fun and Interactive Way

In his new book, Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us, Oscar E. Fernandez shows that calculus can actually be fun and applicable to our daily lives. Whether you’re trying to regulate your sleep schedule or find the best seat in the movie theater, calculus can help, and Fernandez’s accessible prose conveys complex mathematical concepts in terms understandable even to readers with no prior knowledge of calculus. Fernandez has also provided a list below of his favorite affordable resources for teaching yourself calculus, both on- and offline.

Princeton University Press offers several other books to help you master this most notorious of the mathematics. If you’re already good at calculus, but want to be great at it, check out Adrian Banner’s The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel at Calculus, an informal but comprehensive companion to any single-variable calculus textbook. For high school mathletes and aspiring zombie hunters of all ages, there’s also Colin Adams’s Zombies and Calculus, an interactive reading experience set at a small liberal arts college during a zombie apocalypse. Readers learn as they go, using calculus to defeat the walking dead.

Calculus. There, I said it. If your heart skipped a beat, you might be one of the roughly 1 million students–or the parent of one of these brave souls–that will take the class this coming school year. Math is already tough, you might have been told, and calculus is supposed to be the “make or break” math class that may determine whether you have a future in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics); no pressure huh?

But you’ve got a little under two months to go. That’s plenty of time to brush up on your precalculus, learn a bit of calculus, and walk in on day one well prepared–assuming you know where to start.

That’s where this article comes in. As a math professor myself I use several free to low-cost resources that help my students prepare for calculus. I’ve grouped these resources below into two categories: Learning Calculus and Interacting with Calculus.

Learning Calculus.

1. Paul’s online math notes–an interactive website (free).

This online site from Paul Dawkins, math professor at Lamar University, is arguably the best (free) online site for learning calculus. In a nutshell, it’s an interactive textbook. There are tons of examples, each followed by a complete solution, and various links that take you to different parts of the course as needed (i.e., instead of saying, for example, “recall in Section 2.1…” the links take you right back to the relevant section). I consider Prof. Dawkins’ site to be just as good, if not better, at teaching calculus than many actual calculus textbooks (and it’s free!). I should also mention that Prof. Dawkins’ site also includes fairly comprehensive precalculus and algebra sections.

2. Khan Academy–short video lectures (free).

A non-profit run by educator Salman Khan, the Khan academy is a popular online site featuring over 6,000 (according to Wikipedia) video mini-lectures–typically lasting about 15 minutes–on everything from art history to mathematics. The link I’ve included here is to the differential calculus set of videos. You can change subjects to integral calculus, or to trigonometry or algebra once you jump onto the site.

3. MIT online lectures–actual course lectures in video format (free).

One of the earliest institutions to do so, MIT records actual courses and puts up the lecture videos and, in some cases, homeworks, class notes, and exams on its Open Courseware site. The link above is to the math section. There you’ll find several calculus courses, in addition to more advanced math courses. Clicking on the videos may take you to iTunes U, Apple’s online library of video lectures. Once there you can also search for “calculus” and you’ll find other universities that have followed in MIT’s footsteps and put their recorded lectures online.

4. How to Ace Calculus: The Streetwise Guide, by Colin Adams, Abigail Thompson, and Joel Hass

If you’re looking for something in print, this book is a great resource. The book will teach you calculus, probably have you laughing throughout due to the authors’ good sense of humor, and also includes content not found in other calculus books, like tips for taking calculus exams and interacting with your instructor. You can read the first few pages on the book’s site.

Interacting with Calculus.

1. Calculus java applets–online interactive demonstrations of calculus topics(free).

There are many sites that include java-based demonstrations that will help you visualize math. Two good ones I’ve come across are David Little’s site and theUniversity of Notre Dame’s site. By dragging a point or function, or changing specific parameters, these applets make important concepts in calculus come alive; they also make it far easier to understand certain things. For example, take this statement: “as the number of sides of a regular polygon inscribed in a circle increases, the area of that polygon better approximates the area of the circle.” Even if you followed that, text is no comparison to this interactive animation.

One technological note: Because these are java applets, some of you will likely run into technology issues (especially if you’re on a Mac). For example, your computer may block these applets because it thinks that they are malicious. Here is a workaround from Java themselves that may help you in these cases.

2. Everyday Calculus, by Oscar E. Fernandez.

Self-promotion aside, calculus teachers often sell students (and parents) on the need to study calculus by telling them about how applicable the subject is. The problem is that the vast majority of the applications usually discussed are to things that many of us will likely never experience, like space shuttle launches and the optimization of company profits. The result: math becomes seen as an abstract subject that, although has applications, only become “real” if you become a scientist or engineer.

In  Everyday Calculus I flip this script and start with ordinary experiences, like taking a shower and driving to work, and showcase the hidden calculus behind these everyday events and things. For example, there’s some neat trigonometry that helps explain why we sometimes wake up feeling groggy, and thinking more carefully about how coffee cools reveals derivatives at work. This sort of approach makes it possible to use the book as an experiential learning tool to discover the calculus hidden all around you.

With so many good resources it’s hard to know where to start and how to use them all effectively. Let me suggest one approach that uses the resources above synergistically.

For starters, the link to Paul’s site takes you to the table of contents of his site. The topic ordering there is roughly the same as what you’d find in a calculus textbook. So, you’d probably want to start with his review of functions. From there, the next steps depend on the sort of learning experience you want.

1. If you’re comfortable learning from Paul’s site you can just stay there, using the other resources to complement your learning along the way.

2. If you learn better from lectures, then use Paul’s topics list and jump on the Khan Academy site and/or the MIT and iTunes U sites to find video lectures on the corresponding topics.

3. If you’re more of a print person, then How to Ace Calculus would be a great way to start. That book’s topics ordering is pretty much the same as Paul’s, so there’d be no need to go back and forth.

Whatever method you decided on, I still recommend that you use Paul’s site, the interactive java applets, and Everyday Calculus. These three resources, used together, will allow you to completely interact with the calculus you’ll be learning. From working through examples and checking your answer (on Paul’s site), to interacting directly with functions, derivatives, and integrals (on the java applet sites), to exploring and experiencing the calculus all around you (Everyday Calculus), you’ll gain an appreciation and understanding of calculus that will no doubt put you miles ahead of your classmates come September.

This article is cross-posted with The Huffington Post with permission of the author.

Recommended Reading:

 Fernandez_Everyday cover Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us by Oscar E. Fernandez
The Calculus Lifesaver The Calculus Lifesaver: All the Tools You Need to Excel in Calculus by Adrian Banner
 7-18 Zombies  Zombies & Calculus by Colin Adams