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Mathematically Safe (falling off a log) December 12, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life.
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Two first year students were in my office yesterday.  We were going through an impromptu tutorial on UV/vis and the Beer-Lambert law (or Beer-Bouguer law if we are to acknowledge the actual originators).  Calculators were out and it would appear that there is some difficulty calculating absorbance (A) from transmittance (T):

A = -log10(T)

A simple enough equation for a first year student you might think, but once we got over the problem of logarithms, we struck on the increasing problem of how to use a calculator.  Both students are studying life science degrees and one suggested that we should teach maths classes.  Now, I happen to agree fully with this and am not entirely sure why we don’t (at least, not sure enough to comment openly here).  Unfortunately, what the student had in mind was not teaching actual maffmaticks, but use of calculators as what followed was a 15 minute “masterclass” in using the [shift] button to go from the log of 1000 being equal to 3 and back again.

Looks like we are not alone in this as the following image came from the website of The Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada:

I realise, or course, that this is a common problem for those of us at the frontline of “widening participation” institutions such as mine, but it will get worse.  How many of “da yoof” use/own calculators these days?  Not that many.  I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have narked at people using mobile phones in the lab, not for communication, but for working out how many moles of hydrochloric acid are in a 25 ml sample!

Exponentials?  There’s an app for that, innit?