Math Anxiety with the Pythagorean Theorem

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

— Arthur Ashe

Proof of Pythagorean theorem

Figure 1: Nice Demo of the Pythagorean Theorem.

You might be amazed the amount of math anxiety I deal with at work. Non-engineering folks often stop by my cube for help – I always try to help because I remember how I felt when I was in school and did not understand any math.

Usually, the math question comes in phrased as an issue with an Excel spreadsheet, which people seem more willing to ask questions about than a simple algebra problem. Make no mistake about it – the Excel questions are almost all really algebra questions. For example, I was recently asked how to create an Excel spreadsheet to compute the gross value of check given that the tax rate and net value are known. This really is an algebra problem, but it was phrased as a spreadsheet issue.

A simple geometry question walked into my cube this morning. I saw real fear on this person's face – he needed to use the Pythagorean theorem to determine some dimensions. He was very upset. You could see that he must have been traumatized by the Pythagorean theorem at some time in the past. I have dealt with this sort of trauma in my own family.

The employee wanted to know why the Pythagorean theorem worked and to apply it. My approach was to walk through a classic demonstration that I had seen on Stack Exchange, which I show in Figure 2. The employee seemed to appreciate this demonstration.

Figure 2: Classic Proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Figure 2: Classic Proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

I then worked through some examples of how to apply the theorem and he went away smiling.

After all these years, I still do not understand what it is about math that creates such tremendous fear in people.



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1 Response to Math Anxiety with the Pythagorean Theorem

  1. Earles L McCaul says:

    How many of those 'math' questioners inquired about the geometric construction(s) of the Pythagorean Means (Quadratic, Arithmetic, Geometric, and Harmonic)?

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