Patterns are Important! | exSTEMsions

Patterns are Important!

Why do we talk about patterns and structure?

In math, and in problem solving, we talk a lot about finding patterns and using structures to do various things. It’s all great, but really, don’t you ever wonder, “Hey, why does this matter? Why are we all so wound up about patterns and structure?” They’re fair questions (and as my mother would say, the sign of a curious mind!), so let’s consider.

The answer seems, at least on the surface, pretty straightforward. Patterns and structures matter because they are everywhere, in everything. “Okay,” you think, “that’s great, but why do I need to know that?” Well, because we can use the patterns and structures around us to learn about the world around us, and to do new and interesting things, but only if we can pick out those patterns and structures.  This is why, with even the youngest children, books and games encourage kids to pick out patterns, find things that repeat, or make their own patterns. Recognizing and creating patterns out of blocks, or toys, or stickers, or colors, etc., is a key step in being able find and create more complex patterns later on using words, or numbers, or equations, or models.

Patterns at work... at work!

I have a friend, who I'll call K, who works in finance. Maybe this isn’t something that you would consider a STEM-related career, but in reality, her whole day is driven by math, aided by technology. In her role, part of what she does is analyze data, and create models (in Excel) that represent what might happen in the future, based on her analysis. K analyzes all kinds of things, looking for patterns that help her project what might happen if her company makes a certain choice in the future. As she creates her projections, she looks at other companies that have made similar decisions, the investments they made or didn’t, and the results. K particularly looks at instances where patterns don’t do as expected, or there are outliers in the data where something strange happened, so that she can try to also find patterns there. Doing this helps her company get the big picture of the potential results of their choices, which include the things that might go wrong, and how likely they are to happen. When I asked K to tell me about how she used patterns in her day at work, she replied, “Patterns! My job is 75% about looking at patterns!” She’s a big fan of Excel and all its useful tools that help find and display patterns.


I also posed the question of “Where do you use patterns at work?” to a friend, we'll call J, who is a chemist (much more clearly a STEM career), which caused he and I to have a deep conversation about both patterns AND structures in science, and why they matter. J works for a company that makes medicines. When I asked him to describe what he actually does, daily, related to patterns, he said: “I look for patterns in chemical structures, and the results they produce in biological testing, to make better drugs.” This, to me, seemed like a really simple way to say something I didn’t quite understand, so I made him dig a little deeper. Essentially, in his role, J looks at a molecule, does something to change its structure, runs tests, and looks at the results. Then, he looks for patterns in the results to decide what a different, maybe better way to change the structure of the molecule might be, and does the whole process again. J looks at patterns to figure out ways to make the molecular structures of medicines more effective at whatever it is they are meant to do.

Where are the patterns in your day?

Think about your day. Where are the patterns? What are the structures? How do you use what you know about finding patterns to help you make predictions, decisions, changes, or even just be more efficient? Patterns and structures matter because they are everywhere, in everything. Without patterns, K wouldn’t be able to make projections (and she would be sad, she does love looking at data!), and J wouldn’t be helping to improve the effectiveness of the medicines we take. These are just a tiny sample of how patterns and structures impact our lives. This is why we spend so much time talking about them. Let’s go make some patterns!

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Mathematical Thinking
Math in Daily Life