Math at Work Monday: Becca the Trauma Nurse



When it comes to life and death situations, we want to have confidence in those that are taking care of us. How do they know when to give us medicine, or exactly how much we need? Rebecca Paisley has been a registered nurse for five years and describes her use of practical math in the workplace. 

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I work on an inpatient trauma unit. We take care of the patients once they are seen in the ER. The patients either go to the Intensive Care Unit, the Operating Room or come to our floor. We have a variety of patients – from car wrecks, falls, gun shot wounds, stab wounds, motorcycle wrecks, traumatic brain injuries and some very intense medical surgical patients with complex diagnosis. We care for these patients throughout their stay which can be from 1 day to months. We are constantly on the go, getting patients out of bed, doing procedures at the bedside (extensive dressing changes, chest tube insertions, general patient care), occassionally transfering patients to ICU, if they need a higher level of care. We also admit and discharge patients throughout the day. Needless to say, we are busy!

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use math every single day at work. It’s basic math (simple multiplication, division, addition, subtraction), but I have to use it to take care of my patients. Mainly it’s medication related. For example, you’ve got Tylenol 1000 mg ordered, but the patient needs to use a liquid form (650 mg in 20.3 mL) of the medication, you then have to figure out how many milliliters you need to give the correct dose. Once you do the math a couple of times, you remember the mLs that you need. It’s easy to do it that way with a rountine medication, but sometimes we are doing the math extremely fast in an emergent situation (like a chest tube insertion or code situation). We always double check the medication during these times with a second nurse. Another example is when we give pain medication. Say the patient has diluadid ordered our standard protocol is 0.3 mg to 0.9 mg per dose. Using our judgement, we decide on the dose amount. The medication is stock in 2 mg per 1 mL vial. By using basic division I know that the concentration is 0.2 mg per 0.1 mL. I also use it to figure out the drip rate for IV fluids and antibiotics. Ancef is ordered, it comes in a 50 mL bag, it needs to infuse in 20 minutes. Here is the math in my head: 60 minutes (1 hr) divided by 20 is 3. Multiply 3 by 50 (the mLs needed to infuse) and you get 150 ml/hr. Or if we need to bolus some IV fluids, but the doctor wants them over a certain amount of time. Say 500mL over 4 hours, (500 divided by 4 equals 125, so 125 ml/hr). I also use math to estimate my time spent with my patients in the morning (15-20 mins a patient, totaling 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes ), so I can grab my morning cup of coffee! :) However, this math is not always correct!

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

We have certain medications that are continuous drips, like heparin or insulin. The pharmacy has calculators for these high risk medications for us to use. We just have to plug in the correct numbers, and we get the new dosing rate. The formulas for these calculations are available on our protocols, so if the calculators are unavailble (which rarely happens), we have the formula to use to get the new dosing rate. These calculators are used to reduce human error on these high risk medications. They are extremely important for safe patient care, ONLY as long as the nurse is plugging in the correct values! That’s why there is always a second nurse verification! Some of the medications (like the Tylenol example) will have the milliliters needed for the dose in the order information, but I like to challenge myself, and calculate the dose myself.

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

It makes my patient care more efficient. When I am able to do basic math in my head, I can administer medications faster, especially in an emergent situation where time is everything.

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you ?

I feel pretty comfortable with math, but just basic math. The math I use at work has become “second nature,” so I’m able to use it and not really think about it. More complex calculations require good ‘ole paper and pencil!

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I took geometry, and trigonometry, and I’m guessing Alegbra. I honestly hated math in school, but was fairly good at it. I never wanted to aspire to take calculus or advanced Algebra.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pickup using the skills you learned in school?

In nursing school, we had a pharmacology class, the whole first portion of it was math. We had to pass a math exam to even continue in the class. Everyone was so stressed out about it. We had to hand calculate drip rates, dosages, and do conversions. This math wasn’t foreign to me, as far as proportions and basic alegbra, but it was definitely stressful! Once we learned the “easy” ways to figure these calculations out, it was all good. I had to learn these new ways of solving these problems, it obviously did not come naturally!

Do you have a question for Becca? Send me your question and I will forward it to her.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

5 Math Pitfalls for Journalists

math pitfalls for journalists


Whether the story originates from a study or a few well placed numbers would help drive home a salient point, math is as much a part of modern journalism as a catchy lede or the perfect source. But even with great math skills, journalists are in danger of falling into several traps — and unintentionally misleading their readers. Don’t make these mistakes!

Confusing mean and median

In terms of computations, these are really easy ideas. The mean is the the arithmetic or simple average, while median is the middle value in a set of data arranged from least to greatest. But when should you use mean? And when is the median recommended?

The mean is best for data that is really similar or for measurements like grades, weight or height. Because of the way it is calculated, the mean is influenced by outliers — one or two very large or very small values in the data. These outliers skew the mean, misrepresenting the data set.

Using the median eliminates the chance for an outlier to skew the data. That’s because the extremes are left exactly where they should be — at the extremes. For that reason, medians are often used for dollar values, like home prices or salaries.

Drawing conclusions not explicitly stated in a study

We’ve all seen those stories — coffee will kill you one day and save your life the next. These whiplash-inducing moments may not be the fault of bad research. Instead a reporter or editor could be connecting research results to outcomes that are not revealed at all.

Drawing conclusions is tricky business that should be left to the pros (statisticians in this case). So while it may be tempting to connect A to B, it’s a good idea to double check what the study results actually say.

Not going to the original source

These days, we writers get story ideas from a variety of sources: press releases, articles, and even social media. But when it comes to data, there’s a lot that can happen between the research and its dissemination.

It’s critical to go directly to the original source, rather than pull numbers and conclusions from third parties (yes, even university press releases). Read the study. Call the organization or researcher making these claims.

Using bad data

This pitfall is related to the previous one. If the numbers are wrong in the press release, you risk perpetuating the mistake.

However, it’s also important to consider the original source. Highly partisan or idealogical organizations are often not the best sources for reliable data. Train yourself to be extra skeptical, even of sources that are considered trustworthy. The integrity of your story depends on your digging a little deeper.

Reporting skewed chart data

Pictures are pretty. And while they may paint thousands of words, that story could well be a fairy tale.

An important part of interpreting charts is to carefully consider if the data is properly shown. Do the pie pieces add up to more than 100 percent? Does the range shown on the vertical axis of a line graph make the data seem flatter than it actually is? Sometimes these mistakes are made innocently. Other times, misleading charts are intentional. It’s your job to check these charts for inaccuracies.

Journalists don’t need to be mathematicians, but we do need to question numbers, just as we would question sources. And mostly, you don’t need fancy computations or deep statistical knowledge. Instead, use your natural curiosity and skepticism to be sure that your numbers don’t lie.

Photo Credit: kohlmann.sascha via Compfight cc

Do you have other potential pitfalls to add? Share in the comments section. Or ask questions about the ones listed here! And if you want more details about the math of writing, pick up a copy of Math for Writers, the only math book that most writers and journalists need. Also, look for my upcoming Statistics for Writers course, being offered online later this fall.


Back to School for Teachers, Students and Parents

back to school math


Now that Labor Day is behind us, it’s safe to say that most of country is back at school. In honor of this new beginning, I decided to share three of my most favorite posts for teachers, students and parents.

Five Things Math Teachers Wish Parents Knew

In this post, I asked veteran middle school teacher, Tiffany Choice, to share her advice for parents on how to help their kids succeed in math class. Her advice is golden, and stupid-easy to follow. In fact, none of her ideas involve learning new math methods. Huzzah!

Ten Things Students Wish Math Teachers Knew

I polled the high school and middle school students I know to get this great advice for teachers. If you teach math — at any level — do yourself a favor and take these to heart. Students aren’t asking for the moon.

Ten Things Parents Wish Math Teachers Knew

And there’s one more for teachers. Those of you who are parents see both sides of this equation. The homework wars are real, kids are stressed out and parents feel sometimes powerless to help.

If you’re a parent who needs even more support — and who among us doesn’t? — check out these bonus posts, where I outline ways that you can help your child become a master mathematician — or at least leave math class not feeling like a dummy!

Lowering Homework Stress: 5 easy steps for parents

Five Math Resources for Confused Parents

And of course, I’m around to answer your questions and give you support. Let’s get this school year off to a great, mathy start!

 Photo Credit: loop_oh via Compfight cc

Got a question or comment about any of the above resources, share in the comments section!


Math at Work Monday: Louisa the Greeting Card Designer

Weehah cards


Nothing says hello to a new neighbor like sending a greeting card or an invitation. And cards can mean so much in times of grief or illness. Those special little messages to pull the heart strings have to come from somewhere, right? Louisa Wimberger, founder of Weehah Greeting Cards and Invitations has built a business around these special messages. From greeting cards to invitations, she makes some of the best cards available.

Can you explain what you do for a living?

I design and create greeting cards and invitations. I sell them through my website, at retail shows and festivals, and also wholesale them to stores.

When do you use basic math in your job?

I use math all the time! For example: I use QuickBooks to invoice customers. I have to determine the cost of my supplies and my time in order to come up with a reasonable retail price ($3.95 per card or 10 for $35) and wholesale price ($2.25 per card).

I keep a budget, make purchases with credit cards, and pay that off monthly. On occasion, I hire someone to do mindless or repetitive tasks for me such as packaging cards. I learned that I have to pay someone per piece, and not by the hour!

I have to order cardstock and envelopes almost every week. My cardstock sheets come in 8.5 x 11 or 11 x 17 usually. So, when a customer wants 100 flat cards that measure 4.25 x 5.5 each, how many can I get per sheet? The list goes on.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math? Why or why not?

I use QuickBooks (for invoicing and budget/bookkeeping) and occasionally a calculator (to figure out measurements for things, mostly).

How do you think math helps you do your job better?

If it weren’t for math, I wouldn’t be able to actually make any money doing what I do!

How comfortable with math do you feel? Does this math feel different to you ?

I haven’t usually liked math in the past, but I have learned to appreciate (and even sometimes enjoy) it in the context of my business.

What kind of math did you take in high school? Did you like it/feel like you were good at it?

I think I took Algebra and Geometry but not Calculus. I never, ever felt like I was good at it. I glazed over a lot. I excelled in English, and that came naturally. Math was a push for me almost all the time. (And yet, I did pretty well on the math section of my SATs, oddly enough!)

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do the math you use in your job? Or was it something that you could pickup using the skills you learned in school?

I did not learn new skills. I more had to learn the theories people have behind how to price things, which doesn’t seem exactly like math to me.

Do you have a question for Louisa? Would you like to check out her cards? You can find out more about her at her website.

Photo Credit: Louisa Wimberger, Weehah

Common Core Common Sense: The Series

Common Core Standards

It’s been a blast going unraveling five myths about the Common Core here at Math for Grownups. And I’ve gotten a lot of terrific feedback from commenters. In case you missed any of these posts, I thought I’d put them together in one package. Enjoy — and be sure to share your thoughts in the comment sections of each post!

Myth #1: Common Core is a Curriculum

This is perhaps the most pervasive misunderstanding. In fact, the Common Core Standards are simply that: standards. In education-speak, this means they are statements of what students should know, upon completing a course or grade. Common Core does something a bit more than other sets of standards, giving a clear expectation of the depth of this understanding. >>read the rest

Myth #2: The Standards Omit Basic Math Facts

While grabbing a latte at the local Starbucks a few weeks ago, I ran into a friend of mine. She was taking a break from teaching cursive to high school students at a nearby private school’s summer program. “Kids don’t learn cursive in elementary school anymore, and so they can’t sign their names,” she explained. “Kids aren’t even required to learn their multiplication tables these days!” >>read the rest

Myth #3: The Standards Introduce Algebra Too Late

One of the reasons for Common Core is to be sure that when students graduate from high school they are ready for college and/or the job market. And these days that means having some advanced math skills under their belts. But if you read the Common Core course headings, algebra is not mentioned until high school. >>read the rest

Myth #4: The Standards Require More Testing

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the U.S. education system is standardized testing. And for good reason. There are a myriad of problems with these tests – from their links to private companies to their use as teacher evaluation tools. >>read the rest

Myth #5: Common Core is Overflowing with Fuzzy Math

First, a definition: fuzzy math is a derogatory term for an educational movement called reform math. Therefore the claim of fuzzy math isn’t so much a myth as an attempt to insult  the way that many math teachers and education researchers advocate teaching mathematics to K-12 students. >>read the rest

Know someone who could use an education on what the Common Core standards for math really say? Forward them this link. Or tweet about it and post on your Facebook page.