Learn math for plumbing?

By Murray Bourne, 14 Aug 2011

Plumbing math skills

A letter to the editor of the BC Local News, When are college students supposed to learn math? (no longer there), presents the writer's dismay at the low math requirements for several trade courses. ("BC" is British Columbia, Canada.)

D. Whitworth from Courtenay, BC wrote:

"Dear editor,

I practically choked on my morning toast while reading North Island College’s notice regarding what math levels certain skills need.

I would like to know what person decided that the trades of Welding C, Professional Cook 1, Metal Fabrication, Plumbing and Piping need no math skills except as per ‘assessment.'

I know that NIC is referring to the entry level of training but if students do not know and understand the math concepts at the beginning, then when are they going to learn them?"

Whitworth goes on to say:

"I spent 40+ years in the piping trades and I can assure you that the math that is required is at least to the (so-called) Grade 12 levels. I was required to know how to use algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, not to mention the use of flow formulas, circumference and volume formulas.

How does a student with “no math skills” deal with determining rolling offsets, fabrication of three- and six-piece 90-degree and lateral joints, angles of cut, coverage of sprinkler heads, sizing piping for gas flow, water flow, grades and elevations, etc? All of these require a high degree of math skill."

It turns out Whitworth was a vocational instructor. He moans about the math skill level of high school math graduates and says he...

"...ended up spending a great deal of time teaching the use of pi, square root, volumes and areas, as these concepts were not given to my apprentices at the public school level. I had to sacrifice time that was dedicated to engineering formulas for boiler water treatment, pump capacities, flow and distribution of liquids and gases through pipe, etc.

[...] Math is downplayed and poorly taught at the high school level but is essential to most careers today."

What do the college regulations say?

I did some poking around of the NIC site and found on the Welding course information page:

"In addition to the stated prerequisites secondary school equivalent courses in math, science, physics, and drafting are considered an asset."

An "asset", but not a "requirement". A bit further on it says:

"Prospective students should be aware that trades programs require good hand-eye coordination, good binocular vision, strong abilities in spatial and mechanical reasoning along with good math and communication skills."

Sadly, many colleges decide to drop math requirements for courses otherwise their numbers drop. These trades really do require good math skills, but administrators usually decide having bums on seats without math is better than having no bums at all.

Best time to learn math?

I can't leave this topic without commenting on the timing for learning math skills like pi, square root, volumes and areas. Isn't it far better that the students learn these in the context of their (real) applications, rather than as some detached and often meaningless topic as found in a text book?

Whitworth rightly complains there is not enough time to do it because of other curriculum requirements.

But maybe some time should be made available for learning of such skills - within the actual context where they will be used.

See the 2 Comments below.

2 Comments on “Learn math for plumbing?”

  1. Christopher Buchanan says:

    It seems to me like Mr. Whitworth wasn't just a plumber - more like a process engineer. But I agree wholeheartedly with his gripe: basic maths concepts are vital to everybody.

    In South Africa there is a subject called Maths Literacy. Either it or normal maths is compulsory. Here students learn the real world applications of maths. No fancy proofs but they practice the formulas and by the end of it would make good plumbers.

    Unfortunately it is looked down upon by kids who regard it as the option for simpletons and laggards. People who should take it instead of maths don't, and they fail.

    At least it's a start.

  2. Murray says:

    @Christopher: Actually, Mr Whitworth is probably more enthusiastic about math because he was also a teacher, but hey.

    Thanks for the story about Maths Literacy. I think this is a fairly common situation - the very math that is important to most people in their "real lives" (finance, areas, volumes, units, etc) is not actually studied by most "able" students, and instead they end up in somewhat academic math classes, and wonder why.

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