Today, my 4-year old (who goes by “L” here) is “Student of the Day” at her Montessori preschool. I’ll be spending most of the morning in school with her, hanging out with her and joining her in some of the activities they do. One of the activities we’ll do is take some time to pass around a photo/scrapbook page we put together about L and to let L do a show-and-tell of a special item for her. During that time, she’s supposed to introduce me to the class and then I’m supposed to describe what my job is.

That’s where you readers come in. How would you describe the job of mathematics professor at a small liberal arts college to a room full of 4-year olds?

What you have to work with: The kids are bright, active, know their shapes and numbers, know how to count (most of them to 100 and beyond), and know a tiny bit of basic science.

Both humorous and serious replies are welcome in the comments.

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You are a teacher who teaches grown ups how to use math in order to do their jobs. Math is like a tool. Some people use hammers and saws. You teach them how to use math.

You take thousands of dollars per year from young adults and their parents, and in exchange teach them complicated math that they don’t want to learn, will forget as soon as your class is over, and likely will never use in their future careers.

(And I do the same thing, just with viruses.)

You teach older kids and grown ups to use numbers in new and different ways. Just like when they hear stories, those stories are short and as they grow older they will read longer stories, numbers have longer stories. You teach people to read math’s longer stories.

I like the math is a tool idea. But math is also a way of thinking. I wouldn’t want them to get stuck on math as a tool. Maybe math is another language? And write something on the board in one language and then in math? You could go to a translation page online to get a language equivalent of what you are going to write in math.

Maths as a language i would say! A special language which can be used to describe anything!

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she mentioned to the teacher that I worked at Furman (a liberal arts college in Greenville, SC, where I am a professor of mathematics.) When the teacher asked what I did at Furman, she said: “he plays with his computer and swims.”

When I mentioned this to my colleagues, their reaction was: “pretty accurate!”

Since “mathematics” means almost nothing to anybody except mathematicians, just say you teach hard stuff to grown-ups. If they ask “what stuff?” tell them you teach them how to use numbers to work out how the world works, and how to make it work better.

Mind you, when my young kids were asked what I did for a living, they said: “He goes to work and he drinks his tea”. Which indeed I do.

Ask them to compute

1+2+4+ …+100 and if one of them answers tell him/her they will be as good as Gauss!

You could tell them you blog about a technical subject. They’d get that?

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