Why Calculus?

Often, when students ask this question, they are really asking “Why do I need math at all?” If you haven’t enjoyed your mathematics courses or have found them frustrating, the need to take more math in college for your major can be irritating. Or maybe you are delighted that you’ll be taking more math! Students have completely different experiences of mathematics courses, and here we would like to lay out some reasons that all students should be excited about taking calculus. 


You have probably heard the refrain “Math is everywhere!” many times before, and it’s true: math IS everywhere. From computing your GPA (a weighted average) to understanding how debt works (compounding interest), math runs through most facets of our lives. Of course, neither of the things mentioned above are calculus. So the question remains: Why calculus, specifically? 


Calculus, as a subject, connects algebra and arithmetic to a basic understanding of how things change and accumulate. For example, when you think about speed (how fast you are walking or your car is driving), you may want to predict how long until you get somewhere. That doesn’t seem like a mathematical question, but it is! It is a calculus question, secretly about what are called ‘tangent lines.’ Or say you have some information about how quickly oil is leaking out of a broken pipe in the ocean, and you need to know how much oil there will be to clean up. We found another calculus question, but this time about what’s called a ‘definite integral.’


You may be wondering if you’ll see examples like this in your calculus class, and you absolutely will. One of the key components of the introductory program at Smith College is connecting the mathematical concepts to the field you are interested in, from engineering to geology to economics.  None of our ideas exist in a vacuum – they are all related to other sciences and beyond. 


More importantly, the ability to communicate mathematical concepts in a variety of contexts is crucial to many different fields – we aim to turn all calculus students into effective translators of mathematics into understandable explanations. You will work in small groups in class, practicing explaining and discussing mathematical ideas, and on your written assignments, you will practice writing those explanations down. The skills you will learn in calculus will help you in a variety of majors, which is why so many programs at Smith College require or recommend MTH111 and MTH112.