One of my favorite professors at Arcadia University, Dr. Carlos Ortiz, always says that studying mathematics is like painting the Mona Lisa and that practicing any other science is like painting a house. Though I can’t totally agree with this sentiment, I came to understand its meaning last semester.
When I came to Arcadia as a freshman, I was an undeclared major. I had always had interests in math and art, but I didn’t know what kind of job I wanted in the future. So I took more art and math classes hoping to find my way. I soon became intrigued by Arcadia’s newly emerging actuarial science major. Actuarial science is a growing field involving mathematics and business. Careers in actuarial science have high salaries, great job security, and opportunities to move up. What was not to like?
I declared an actuarial science major at the end of my third semester. The next semester (last spring) was my first taste of classes required for the major. About halfway through the term, I began to understand what Dr. Ortiz meant. Something felt different from the math classes I had taken in the past. There was no creativity.
Most people might not think of math as a creative subject, but as someone who loves math but has an artistic side, I see it differently. To solve a math problem, you need to be creative. You need to look at problem from many angles and decide how you’re going to approach it. And there’s not just one way to solve a single problem. Going over homework in a math class, you get to see the clever solutions that people found to a common problem. They may have thought about it in a completely different way than I did.
The satisfaction of laboring over a particularly difficult math problem and finally solving it is similar to the satisfaction of working diligently on a piece of art and finally stepping back and getting to see it completed. Observing the way my peers think differently and hearing their different approaches is like having a class critique in one of my art classes and seeing how every student approached a project in their own way.
In my actuarial science classes, however, we were not focused on the creativity of solving problems. The classes were taught in order to help students pass the actuarial exams, which you must pass if you want to become a certified actuary. For this reason, the classes concentrated on the fastest and most efficient way to solve a problem. I memorized formulas and learned calculator tricks but didn’t know how to think about the problems intuitively.
I didn’t feel as though I was painting a masterpiece; it was more like I was painting a wall. At the end of the semester I made my way to the registrar’s office to pick up a “Change of Major” form to switch from actuarial science to mathematics. And while I was there, I also grabbed a “Declaration of Minor” form to declare a minor in studio art.
Now I’m taking two classes to go to towards my major, Probability and Problem Solving with Algorithms, and two classes for my minor, Printmaking and Intro to Graphic Design. So far this semester my work has involved sketching print designs, brainstorming logos for imaginary businesses, and finding the probability of drawing certain hands in a poker game. It’s going to be a good semester.