Math Anxiety

Updated: May 6, 2021

I'm gonna dispel a long-held myth about our profession and let you in on a little secret: You don't have to be a math whiz to be a good Land Surveyor. Granted, it doesn't hurt, but it isn't necessary. What is necessary is being good at manipulating numbers in your head, especially when working in the field and utilizing applied mathematical routines specific to Land Surveying. The good news is anyone can learn both with a little training and effort.

Math was always my worst subject. Grammar school, high school or college, it didn't matter. The lowest grade on my report card was always math. It took me three tries in college just to pass Intermediate Algebra with a C. I started College Algebra, Geometry and Trig and dropped outta all three. The concepts were just too abstract for me—especially Algebra. My brain needed something to apply the math to or it just wouldn't stick.

Then along came Land Surveying. A friend who was a RLS needed a rodman about the time I needed some direction in life along with a steady job. Math wasn't required to hold the rod and pound hubs. But as I progressed, exposure to the unique applied mathematics of Land Surveying increased and to my surprise it was actually fun to use and empowering to learn. Math was no longer an abstract principle—it was a useful tool. Kinda like the difference between a Physics equation related to blunt force and actually pounding a hub into the ground with an eight lb. sledge.

Eventually I landed in a two year Land Surveying program at a career college and was introduced to COGO and a programmable HP calculator. Now the formulas I had struggled with in Algebra, Geometry and Trig made sense to me—especially those related to COGO and circular curves. We were given worksheets with lines of code which we hand entered into our calculators. The code formed the standard surveying routines such as inversing and solving circular curves. It was easy and fun and no more math anxiety.

The same school introduced to me to CAD and the math got even easier. The CAD environment added the visual dimension to calculations so I could SEE the results of COGO and Geometry real-time when I offset a line or trimmed a curve. Finally I felt downright competent at math.

There's another tool I learned along the way: How to add, subtract, multiply or divide larger numbers in your head. This is especially useful in the field or when reading plans. Here's an example to give you an idea how it works:

727 + 236

First add 700 + 200 = 900

Next add 20 + 30 = 50

Then add 7 + 6 = 13.

900 + 50 + 13 = 963

The same principle works for larger numbers as well as subtraction. Just break the numbers into figures you can manage in your head. You'll get better with practice and there are similar types of tricks for division and multiplication.

So to be a good Land Surveyor you don't necessarily have to KNOW math, just know how to USE math with readily available tools and techniques anyone can acquire and learn. It's like using a Total Station or GPS receiver: few of us know how they actually work but we all know how to correctly use them. John Rogers, PLS (retired) The Tenth Society

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