Why math is like street fighting
An M.I.T. professor wants students to begin using educated guesses to come up with solutions to math problems in the real world.By: Debra Black Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Mar 30 2010
Street fighting and math hardly seem like they would fit together.But for Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sanjoy Mahajan, street fighting is a perfect analogy to encourage his students to use educated guesswork to solve math problems in the real world.
“In street fighting, the beautiful form of a kick doesn’t matter,” Mahajan said in a phone interview with the Star. “What really helps you is if you connect and get results you need and survive. You can think of problem-solving as being in a duel with nature. You want to get to the end. The beauty and the elegance of it doesn’t matter.”
In his course, the “Art of Approximation in Science and Engineering,” Mahajan
associate director for teaching initiatives at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory, wants his students to use a variety of principles or ways of reasoning – everything from analogical to pictorial – to come up with solutions.
Mahajan believes essentially the students have to lower their standards – a hard thing for any educator to utter and even harder thing for perfection-wired students to embrace.
“They have been trained that science and engineering is all about rigor and exactness. And yes, it is at the end. But at first you need a rough idea of where you are. You need to lower your standards and get something on paper.”
Mahajan believes that if students focus on rigorous exact formulas of mathematics, they’ll never come up with solutions. “Life comes at you with roughly stated problems,” he said. And “you need rough answers.” Read more.