Maths connections in real life

Find out how high school maths is used in real life – including in all sorts of cool STEM jobs!

Maths is all around us and has enabled all the features of our modern world. Doing maths is all about looking for and working with patterns. It has its own language and rules, and once you master the basics you can achieve the impossible!

The maths we learn at school is organised into categories to help us learn the language and rules quicker: there’s number and algebra, measurement and geometry, and statistics and probability. But in the real world engineers, scientists, software developers, industrial designers and astronauts use a combination of different kinds of maths concepts to help with challenges like solving climate change, using energy more efficiently and even in space exploration.

While using their maths skills, these STEM experts are also considering other things like sustainability, ethics and social impacts. Everything in the world around you is connected and starts with the maths you learn at school.

Check out these four fun facts on how maths matters.

Using geometry to build our world

  • The maths: geometry, algebra, material density

  • The careers: civil engineer, structural engineer, town planner, architects.

Ever looked at the Sydney Harbour Bridge and thought about how many pieces of curved steel are used in the arch, how deep the pylons must be to keep the bridge anchored, or how much paint is required each year?

While you may not think about the engineers (in this case structural or civil) using high school geometry, algebra and material density to help build bridges (and roads and skyscrapers and so many other features of our urban environments), the reality is without this foundation you just can’t build feats like these.

The built environment, from our tiny homes to our largest dams, relies on both fundamental and more complex mathematics, and is a bit like a game of Tetris. Town planners, architects and engineers move ‘pieces’ around to make sure all the parts fit to make our cities safe, smart and future-proof.

Analysing data to save the bees

  • The maths: data collection and analysis

  • The careers: climate scientist, agriculturalist, data analyst, software engineer.

Did you know that there are more than 2000 types of Australian bees? Bees are often called ‘nature’s engineers’ because of the complexity of their hives. They use repeating hexagons (tessellations) to build a strong structure. But doing maths and making honey aren't the most important thing about bees – it’s their pollination of plants.

Farmers and scientists alike are conducting research to figure out why bee populations are declining – as these helpful little pollinators are responsible for about one-third of the world’s food production!

For example, scientists at CSIRO developed ‘backpacks’ to help track bees and collect data about their behaviour. Analysing this data on a global scale and looking at different variables such as temperature change, pollution levels and parasites, is helping us to keep the world’s bee population stable and future-proof food production.

And maths is integral to this crucial project. From creating the microchip to data analysis and looking for patterns are all key to solving this global issue.

Using cryptography to send secrets

  • The maths: number theory, algebra, logs and matrices, probability

  • The careers: coder, hacker, intelligence officer

Ever written a note to your friend in class and thought “I hope the teacher doesn’t read it?”. Well maths could solve your problem!

Enter the world of cryptography and number theory (the study of the integers and integer-valued functions). Encryption is what keeps your personal data secure when you're shopping or banking online. It scrambles data like your credit card details and home address to ensure hackers can't misuse this information.

Cryptography wasn’t always as complex as the algorithms we use today. The Spartans of ancient Greece used it to send secret messages during battles, using a device called a scytale.

Cryptography relies on keys to help find the pattern to allow you to ‘translate’ the data.

In this age of Big Data, technology and quantum computers, the codes for secure cryptography will need to become more sophisticated, which means career opportunities for people with a head for numbers, linguistics and seeing trends and patterns.

From cannonballs to satellites and solar panels!

  • The maths: quadratics, algebra, surface area, angles, ratios

  • The careers: renewable energy engineer, electrician, astrophysicist, industrial designer, materials engineer

Galileo used square numbers to figure out the precise motion of a cannonball (called parabolas), which allowed soldiers to calculate its path and hit targets out of sight. Centuries later, the same maths enabled NASA to design a satellite and launch it into orbit (when something is in orbit it’s always in ‘freefall’, accelerating towards the Earth’s surface – kind of like a big cannonball in space! – but because it’s going so fast, it stays in orbit, never falling to Earth).

The maths of parabolic analysis is used in many applications, from building satellites and keeping our global communications and monitoring systems functioning, to building more efficient solar panels, both for on your roof or in solar farms!

Parabolic solar panels can concentrate the Sun’s light rays and convert more of it into electricity to power our lifestyles. Not only does the shape, surface area and the material of the panel matter, but the angle at which the panels are placed and their distance apart (minimising shadows) also allows them to collect and convert light into electricity at different times of the day. Some even have motors so that they rotate following the Sun’s path of light.

As our exploration of space and energy needs increase, so will the demand for critical and creative thinkers who can apply maths concepts and see patterns, enabling them to predict problems before they occur and design the solutions to make our world a better place.

Angela Crompton

First published on

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