The only person who would not understand the title above is a person who neither speaks not understand Pidgin English (definitely not a Nigerian Nigerian!) For the benefit of anyone wondering whether there is a typo in the title, let’s rephrase it: “Who has finding X helped?” Anyone still confused may have never sat in a maths class where algebraic questions ask students to “find X”. So I ask again: Who finding X don epp?
Before we proceed, let’s recognize the presence of 1st July. It seems just a few days ago when fireworks filled the skies, accompanied by joyous exclamations of new year pleasantries. Today, regardless of the exact 183rd day, we officially start the second half of the year 2016. So I join billions of earthlings to offer a warm welcome to the month of July. Happy New Month!
We return to the matter of finding X. Before now, I have come across jokes, picture parodies, and articles where the idea of asking students to find X was questioned. Quite a number of persons, especially in non-science fields have publicly wondered why they were made to solve countless questions focused on finding X or any other variable, whereas after school, they never came across any situation where a “missing” X had to be found. I usually ignore such questioners knowing that their questions are influenced by a lack of understanding. However, during the course of this week, I came across an article that virtually “finished” engineering students and the engineering profession in Nigeria. The writer talked about Chinese kids building mobile phones while Nigerian engineering students continue finding X. With my degree in engineering, I simply could not let it go—it had become personal. Talk about “pressing p”.
I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Therefore, I believe I have the legal right to talk on the issue of finding X. If I received a dollar each time I have written “X” or any other variable in a book, I would have a seat at Davos. Whereas most students drop maths after their first year, for engineering students, X features all through our stay in the university. Now we are being asked the benefit of finding X.
As I said earlier, “who finding X don epp” is a question backed by a lack of understanding. Someone looks at Nigeria’s numerous problems and says that all Nigerian engineers know how to do is to keep finding X. The person looks at foreign technological innovations and wrongly assumes that the innovators never had any reason to find X. Nothing could be more untrue. The basic syllabuses used for engineering students in Nigerian schools are the same set of topics covered at MIT and Imperial College. Everyone faces equations of different sizes, shapes and complexities. Instead of asking “who finding X don epp”, a better question would be “why finding X never epp us”.
The “why” is very important. The Nigerian problem is linking school work to practice. People see roads, bridges and other imposing edifices, but do not know that they are underpinned by mathematics. Julius Berger does not just go to a construction site to start building a bridge. Calculations would have first determined the type and magnitude of stresses that the bridge would have to withstand. It is in these analyses that finding X become important. Moving to mechanical objects such as a car’s engine, Toyota does not just enter a factory to cast an engine block. The size, shape, materials used, cooling mechanism, etc., would have been determined by numerous calculations. People spend hours with different computing devices, not knowing that without maths, their computers would not exist. Everything done by a computer depends on predefined algorithms, which in most cases continually solve for variables whose values are dynamic.
You see that the problem is not finding X. It’s finding X to solve a real-life problem. That’s where Nigerians have a bit of a problem; creativity is lacking. Engineering requires me to see a problem, and to notice similarities between that problem and a mathematical model. Then I model that problem using mathematics, find a solution, or a set of solutions, and then translate the maths solution(s) into real life applications that people can use. This is finding X to help humanity.
Widening the scope, being taught to find X is a way of teaching students to think, to be able to create solutions in everyday life. Things learnt in school may not have a “direct” application, but they serve useful functions. For example, when non-philosophy majors are made to offer philosophy courses, it is not as if they are philosophy students. Rather, it is because the school believes it can through that means teach them to think, to ask questions. So while philosophy may not be directly usable by a chemist, his/her mind has been shown questioning patterns. Similarly, medical students begin with corpses for practicals. A medical doctor would not work on a corpse, but using corpses as teaching aids allows the school to teach what would otherwise be difficult to teach.
Now that I have finished venting, I can go take a chill pill, and offer a knowledge oil o the help questioners. The next time anyone asks me, “who finding X don epp”,I ould simply reply, “You!”
Image Credit: CRG