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Why Algebra is Important

By William Springer

Why bother learning algebra?

Math is the least popular school subject; because it constantly involves learning entirely new ways of thinking about things, it provides more of a mental challenge than most people care for. However, algebra is such a large part of our daily lives that is important for everyone to understand. So what are the applications of high school algebra? Exactly why is algebra important?

Algebra is the Key to Advancement

Planning to go to college? Chances are you're going to need algebra. Obviously the hard sciences (such as physics and chemistry) are extremely mathematical, but you might not realize how much other fields depend on math as well. Computer science? You need algebra to analyze how quickly programs run. Psychology? Requires statistics, which comes after algebra. Art? Algebra is useful to calculate the correct proportions which will lead to an aesthetically pleasing result. Music? The underlying structures of music are basically mathematical.

Planning to start working right out of high school rather than going on to college? A 2006 ACT study found that occupations that pay enough to support a family but do not require a four year degree, such as becoming a plumber or electrician, also require basic algebra skills.

Because of its importance, algebra is often referred to as a gateway subject; those who do not understand it find themselves unprepared for college and the workforce.

Applications of High School Algebra in Everyday Life

But suppose you won't be going to college and plan to clean bathrooms for a living. Does that mean you don't need to know algebra?

Well, sure. Unless you plan to go grocery shopping. (The same item from different companies tends to be packaged in different units, so you need to do a quick calculation if you want to know which is cheaper). You don't need anything particularly complex - just set x to be the price per unit and solve - but this is a simple application of high school algebra.

Real-World Example

Suppose you want to buy a new television, but you want it to fit on your current TV stand. If your TV stand is 19 inches wide, how large of a TV can you get?

Because TV size is measured by the length of the diagonal, this is a great example of a time when you'd use the Pythagorean Theorem. You could carry a tape measure to the store and measure how wide each TV is. Or you can simply calculate how large of a TV you can buy!

If you plan to buy a traditional (non-widescreen) television, the width to height ratio is 4:3; plugging this in to the pythagorean theorem, we get 4x2 + 3x2 = y2, where x is the width of your TV stand and y is the largest TV you can buy. For a widescreen tv, replace 4 and 3 in the above formula with 16 and 9.

Necessary for Success In Business

I run an online toy store, so why is algebra important to me as a business owner? I need to be able to calculate my profit margin on any given item and decide whether it's worthwhile to stock it in my store. I also need to calculate what's the lowest price I can sell an item for and still make enough money to cover expenses.

Again, this is not complicated math, but once you're used to it, algebra really isn't that complicated, and it makes a lot of things in everyday life much easier. Although I use algebra and graph theory for my work in computer science, I find that understanding applications of high school algebra makes the day to day things much simpler and less time-consuming. That means less time spent and more money earned...and who can say no to that?