When will we ever use this?

By Daris Howard
Special to The PREVIEW
We were only in the first week of class when Evan asked something that would become the norm for him through much of the semester. We had just finished looking at some ideas on using math to make decisions in life when he asked, “When will we ever use this?”
I explained that the goal of this class, Math in the Real World, was to give the students lots of tools which would help them make the best decisions possible. I told him the first lessons were just laying down the steps that would be the framework for making those decisions.
From then on, there was hardly a class period when Evan didn’t ask the same question. I feel it is essential for students to understand the value of what they are learning, but with Evan, it almost seemed like he would ask without thinking for himself. It was more of a habit.
He asked the question when we talked about making a budget and using it to make decisions about how to best utilize resources. He asked it when we went over Excel functions and how they could be used in different monetary issues. He even asked the question when we looked at the growth of investments in a retirement plan.
One day I was sure the discussion I had prepared would finally be such that even Evan wouldn’t have to ask where he would use what he had learned. We started off the day by playing a game of The Price Is Right. The groups of students had to guess from gut feeling what they thought the total of a loan (interest plus principal) would be. The winning group got candy.
The loan was for $120,000, the interest rate was 8 percent, and the length of the loan was 30 years. Most of the student groups guessed under $200,000 and were surprised to find out that the total would be around $317,000. We then discussed ways the students had heard for reducing the amount of interest paid. One student said she had heard that if a person paid extra on each loan payment it would reduce the interest.
“But most people can’t pay enough to make it worth it,” a boy said.
“How much would you have to pay to make it worth it?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Probably about half of the normal payment,” he replied.
We had found that the payment was around $880 per month, so he suggested that to make any difference, a person would probably have to add about $400 on each payment.
“How much do you think most people could afford?” I asked.
The students couldn’t seem to agree on a value, so I said, “How about $50? A married couple could go out for ice cream on their dates instead of a full dinner and save that much a month.”
I joked that I wasn’t suggesting the husband not take his wife out, or the women would hate me. But I felt everyone could do $50. The students all agreed.
We plugged the numbers into the computer, and the students gasped at what it showed. It would save around $42,000 in interest and cut off five years. The students then, as groups, tried some sample ideas with student loans, house loans and car loans. We came back together as a full class to finalize the discussion and were just ending when Evan raised his hand.
When I called on him, he asked, “When will we ever use this?”
I stood there so stunned I couldn’t speak. And before I could, Savannah, the girl next to him did.
“Are you stupid or something?” she said to him. “The answer to your question is obvious.” She then scooted her chair away from him. “Don’t sit too close. I don’t want it to rub off on me. And don’t even consider asking me out.”
I figured she answered him better than I could, so I didn’t try.
And from then on, before he asked, Evan thought a little more for himself about how what he learned could be used.

This story was posted on October 11, 2019.