How many times have math teachers heard that question? I question the assumption underlying it – that math should only be learned if it has “real-life” application. I wonder if my colleagues who teach literature have to deal with that! Of course, math is worth studying in and of itself, just as poetry is.
That said, I do try to make connections between abstract mathematical concepts and things my students encounter in their lives. So, as my precalculus students wrapped up their investigations into parabolas, ellipses, and hyperbolas, we looked at some examples of how they occur in the real world. We took photos of the water coming out of a drinking fountain, the fireplace of our school’s library, and a flashlight’s beam when it is next to a wall. Then, we pasted the photos into Geometer’s Sketchpad, placed a grid over them, and came up with functions that model each conic section. They got very excited as they saw their function plots match the photos so closely. Hmm, maybe there is something to these crazy conics after all….