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Sunday, 25 September 2011

Food and Math

Anyone who has ever taken a math class from me knows that food will be mentioned.  I always say that this is because, even more than video games, food is central to any teen's life.  Actually it may be that I find food very helpful because it is universal.  So chocolate chip cookies teach basic arithmetic; pizza is a natural for fractions; and, fruit salad was meant for algebra.  I have also noticed that the higher the math skills the less fun the food becomes.  Am I subconsciously trying to get the kids to eat properly?  Not sure about that one.  Maybe I won't spend time here exploring my subconscious.  That could be rather scary!

So then I was thinking about how to use food to explain common denominators for fractions.  What about a camping trip?  Or just your weekly shopping list?  Maybe we'll have spaghetti one night, shepherd's pie another, chicken cacciatore on Wednesday, fish next, and pizza on Friday.  So how does one make the list?  We take the ingredients and check the supplies.  But we combine the fact that Monday and Tuesday's dinners both need ground beef.  We reduce the recipes to the common ingredients.  You have to break down the big numbers until you get the common parts.  Break 1/3 into 2/6 or 4/12 (always smaller units) until you get to a unit that can work with 3/4, or 6/8 or 9/12.  And so we have a common denominator.

But then it struck me!  I am not only finding a common denominator but also showing that you need to put like ingredients together.  Ground beef from two dinners, tomato sauce from three, etc.  So I am adding like terms.  Algebra here we come!  Math is so great because it is so simple!  And yet can be made so beautifully complex!

My other passion is language where complexity is found in the innuendos and subtle flavours of words and their juxtapositions.  Math is so magnificent in its simplicity and clarity.  There are such strict rules and no exceptions.  I find it very amusing that students think speaking and texting are so simple and math is so hard.  The opposite is true.  We all know the messes that can occur with a simple misunderstanding of the words on a message or the tone of a note.  In math there can be no misunderstanding.  What you see is what you get.  There are no interpretations, no miscommunications.  2 + 2 is always 4, regardless of your mood, the weather, how much sleep you got, and whether the source is a friend or foe.  Math is pure and consistent in a world constantly changing.  It can explore the universe and still remain the same.  Anyone can learn it because, unlike our spoken language, it is a universal language.  It is based on some very clearly laid out principles and then everything is derived from that.

So back to food.  Math should not be taught as a series of recipes to be memorized but as a list of ingredients which can be combined in certain ways to produce something so much more.  Just as understanding the properties of flour and water can produce bread, pizza dough, gravy or glue, so understanding the basics of math can lead to algebra, functions, and calculus.  The more you cook, the better you become.  The more you play with math, the easier it is.  So join me sometime in the kitchen and we will learn some algebra.

Long live chocolate chip cookies!

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