story problem 

I had some challenges when I took Calculus back in grade 13 (“we had more grades when I was young”). An awful lot of the homework and tests were story problems. I usually did well with math story problems but the problems for Calculus were pretty eye-popping.

A memorable one involved figuring out the average speed of someone who meandered all over the country at different speeds and distances. There were over a dozen different segments to this journey. Sometimes the traveller would change the rate of acceleration (“jerk” to some).

I started writing down the details for each segment, fretting about how to determine the overall average speed.

About halfway through this process, I realized that the problem gave me, in a buried sort of way, the total time and the total distance. I was initially suspicious. Usually, when it’s this easy, it’s because I’ve missed something.

A warm glow filled me as I realized that I had the solution using 7th grade tools instead of a stressful hour of calculation.

I was right. It turns out that the instructor wanted to make sure that we understood the problem instead of mindlessly following the herd of the other questions.

I flunked the test but I got that one question right. A small victory in an otherwise torturous class.

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