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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 7 Comments below.

7 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.

  3. J.R. Pina says:

    Today we live in high technology robs today youth how to solve simple math problems, especially going to the store, fast food, & convience store where they rely on the computer to tell them how much owed back to the customer.
    When I took basic Physics, & trignometry; my math skills to a different perspective; I see it much differently, but quicker results.
    Math will always be part of life no matter what your task is going to be. From getting up in the morning, judging time to be somewhere, how money do I have for coffee, & what to pay for this week bills.
    My suggestion to anyone, find someone that is willingly to help you, dont be ashamed who does find the time to teach you; make the effort, you will be glad you did.

  4. Nathan King says:

    This article is very interesting because of the seemingly unusual situation I have been in with math all my life. I identify all too well with the educational problems that have been presented in this article. From my earliest childhood years, beginning with my interest in clothes washers at the age of 3, I knew I wanted to be a plumber when I grew up because I knew that working with water pipes and plumbing equipment was the only thing I ever wanted to do for a career. Yet I learned not too long beyond the age of 10 that I would need math skills in order to be a plumber. By the way, I have Aspergers syndrome and have significant learning difficulties that were hardly ever addressed in school. That was how I fought and fought and fought to learn math skills but just could not advance, number one, because I quickly forgot whatever I learned, and number two, because my math difficulties were NOT addressed by the school system no matter how hard I tried to get “them” to give me extra and special academic attention in math — but they just absolutely wouldn’t, acting like everything would be okay when I knew that things WEREN’T going to be okay if I could not get the skills in school that I needed for a job situation. So I ended up being in a situation where, proverbially speaking, I continued to lack math skills over my dead body. The first time I knew my math problems had finally caught up with me occurred at the very beginning of the school year of my first year in tech school when the other students and I in the plumbing class were given a math book entitled “Mathematics for Plumbers and Pipefitters” and I realized that I could just barely do anything at all even in the first few pages of the book. Eventually I became a Social Security recipient because of my problems with employment. Now, at the age of 48, I once again have a chance, with the help of special services, to get into plumbing school in another attempt at a formal plumbing course, only to find that I must be able to do pre-algebra in order to pass an entrance exam, and I can barely do anything more than long division, with only 6 months to hopefully improve my math skills with the help of a tutor and internet learning, while I regret that my math problems weren’t paid attention to when they should have been addressed. At the age of 13, I knew that I wanted to reach algebra by the time I was 14, but it never happened. Now, at the age of 48, I still don’t know algebra but know I will have to learn it if I want to get into plumbing school, with nothing except bad memories of how fiercely I tried during my teenage years to claw my way to the top in my math skills, but it JUST didn’t work. So I can only hope now that I can compensate for all the math I failed to learn during my school years.

  5. Nathan King says:

    WHY CAN'T I POST ON THIS WEBSITE? I get a message saying "something went wrong, preview not available."

  6. Murray says:

    @Nathan: Thank you for sharing your story.

    Early intervention is certainly very important and it is a great shame it wasn't offered to you when you really needed it. Schools are never as well resourced as they should be.

    Your tenacity is obvious and I sincerely wish you all the best with your studies!

  7. Murray says:

    @Nathan: I'm not sure why that message appeared, since as you can see, your 2 posts were saved just fine.

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