‘You must keep track of inventory’: Story-problem stories

brandi_math_2014

A friend recently posted this photo to Facebook, and, as I am a Matt, I was drawn to it. But I found this story problem to not accurately represent my desires. I don’t really want any flag at all, but given the choice of the two, I’d much prefer the Mondrian-esque flag on the right rather than the one with “4 equal parts.”

But then, story problems are all too often mere fiction. Students are expected to apply some math processes to situations that, while plausible (like realistic fiction) are not actually, you know, real.

I see some problems here with story problems that have fictional set-ups. One, if the situations are fictional, doesn’t that also suggest that the math is fictional (see also here), too? And if so, why should I spend any more time learning math than I do learning the names of all the dwarves in The Hobbit? And, two, if I’m an imaginative person, I might get so interested in the fictional situation and/or the fictional text that actually doing the math might seem damn boring in contrast, or even besides the point. Who cares about an equally sectioned red flag, if green better matches my living room decor?

Below are some examples (found here, questions that are in the style of the exam given to high school juniors in Illinois) of fictional math situations that seem strange and wonderful.

4. A customer in the music shop where you work purchases 3 cassette tapes. One costs $8.99, one costs $7.99, and one is on sale for $3.99. Excluding taxes, how much does the customer owe?

First, let me ask why the test writers either, A., know preternaturally much about my afterschool employment, or B., are asking me to pretend a whole lot here: I work in a “music shop” — what is this, 1998? Nope, wait, a customer is purchasing “cassette tapes,” so this is 1985. These prices certainly suggest those of the ’80s, but even then, who is selling a cassette for $3.99? Is this a good deal? I mean, is this cheap cassette Led Zeppelin IV or is it the Bullet Boys? If it’s the latter, should I harass the customer for his terrible taste?

So many questions: Why would I exclude taxes — isn’t that included in what the customer has to pay? I mean, am I gonna offer the customer numerous nonfinal tallies, say, giving a subtotal after every item? And why doesn’t this 1985 “music shop” have a cash register to do this work for me? Is the power out? It’s store policy to ask patrons to leave and we lock the store until the lights are back on.

The word “owe” — is the customer taking out a loan to buy these cassettes? Should I, as a math student of the future, advise the buyer not to buy cassettes at all, as the vinyl that now seems inconvenient will be cool again in just a few years, and the CDs that are coming soon will be usable long after cassette players become scarce, but the cassettes he buys will just be stored in some box in a closet in his mother’s house, to be thrown away when she moves out? Would the customer find my future-perspective frightening, as he did not know he would be buying items from a test-taker who was born long after 1985?

6. You must keep track of inventory in an office supply warehouse. This week, 8 computers of a particular model have been shipped out of the warehouse to a local store, while 4 more computers of the same model have been received by the warehouse from the factory. What is the overall change in the number of these computers in inventory this week?

I “must.” Ha, such imperatives. Am I a slave in this office supply warehouse? Or is it a family obligation, like maybe my manager is my wife’s uncle, who was kind enough to give me a job when I got fired (for asking too many questions and frightening the customers) from the “music shop” in question 4 above — and I had to spend some purgatory time in Question 5,  where I was told to Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — and so now I feel like I owe the guy, even though our warehousing business isn’t doing so well. It’s these damn Kaypros. I keep telling him that everybody wants IBM or Apple computers, but he won’t listen, and half the computers we send out come back. He just tells me to stick with the strategic plan, but I really think he’s just jealous of my intellect. My wife tells me to bide my time, that the resumes I’m sending out to get a job in my field will eventually pay off, but until then, I’m stuck in the logistics biz. No kid ever grows up and says he wants to be in “logistics” — but here I am. Ah, well, at least I got a place to go and a paycheck to keep my home warm. And thanks to all these Kaypros we keep getting returned, I don’t have to do the inventory myself. Lotus 1-2-3, take it away.

After Question 7 — Calculate the missing values so as to complete the chart — ignores the spreadsheet the Kaypro made, I’m apparently moving to the health care field. Such career whiplash:

8. In the hospital where you work, one of your duties is to take pulse counts. One patient has a pulse count of 21 beats in 15 seconds. At this rate, what should this patient’s pulse count be for 60 seconds?

Man, oh, man, do I hate taking pulse counts. Having to hold the bony wrists while keeping a finger on the sagging flesh of these old arms, it’s the worst. Plus, are we really sure that it should be my “duty”? I mean, I have no experience except selling cassettes and inventorying computers. But around this place, man, you never know. But that’s why sometimes, just to keep myself amused, I’ll count a pulse beat for 10 seconds, and then scream, “OH MY GOD, WHAT’S THAT ON YOUR HEAD?” at the patients just to see how much faster their heart rates can get. I go for unpredictable. But even if I don’t scare them on purpose, how do we know that their heart will beat at an even rate for the next 45 seconds? I mean, dead people’s hearts once worked, too, until they didn’t. And once a person’s dead, at least they don’t have to do these stupid story problems.

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