After a tour as an enlisted US Marine I went to college on a NROTC scholarship. Following graduation I had a degree in math and a commission in the US Navy- it was an accomplishment of a lifetime. One of the requirements to be a Navy Officer is you had to have at least 1 year of calculus, physics and computer science. As I started taking calculus as a freshman in college I decided to keep studying math and became a math major. My degree in math really helped me as a Navy Officer. I was trained as a Navy Surface Warfare Officer- we are the officers that “fight” ships as seen in this picture. My job in the Navy was challenging and my math degree came in “handy” on more than a few occasions. Here is a quick look into some of the ways I used math in the Navy.
My first ship assignment was propulsion plant engineer. I was responsible for all the systems that produced power to keep the ship underway. Needless to say there was a lot of engineering training that was involved in my job. My technical duties were much easier because I understood the language of math and science. I was able to apply theories and concept into real life trouble shooting and solutions. Although I was not doing calculus when managing ship board systems I could skillfully investigate a very technical issue with my engineering and math background. After four years of studying abstract algebra, multi-variable calculus and differential equations I was very comfortable with the complex and challenging.
Critical Thinking / Decision Making
As a Surface Warfare Officer I was also trained to be the Officer Of The Deck (OOD). This meant I was in control of the ship driving it when the Captain was away. Some of the most exciting moments I had in the military is when I was standing watch as the OOD. I had to make critical decisions and errors could cost people their lives. When you’re in total control operating a Navy war ship you have to take in large amounts of complex data and make quick decisions. My math training helped develop my ability to study data and draw actionable conclusions. Making sense of raw data and solving problems was all I did as a math major. When I deployed to the Persian Gulf and operated the ship in harm’s way I was very confident in my abilities to analyze my surroundings (via lots of data) and make good decisions.
For my last tour in the Navy I was assigned to be the navigator of a ship. I loved this job! Of course I knew I could excel at the assignment because navigation is totally based on math. Even though we used GPS to help navigate the ship we also practiced celestial navigation and radar navigation. Wow, this really made me appreciate ancient navigators. Celestial navigation is basically one big trigonometry problem so if a person could not handle the math they could easily make a navigation mistake and take the ship to the South Pole.
Another thing I did a lot of as a navigator was make quick assessments to where the ship was located based on gyro-compass bearings and rate/distance calculations. I became very experienced and was able to make all these calculations in my head- I could just look at the radar, wind speed, ship speed and compass and knew what to do. The Navy was the best “math word problem” I had in my life. My math training just kept helping me and helping me even after the Navy. As I reflect on my experiences I appreciate my math professors even more and hope to share their passion for math with as many students as possible.
Below is a video I did to explain the basics of Celestial Navigation math- enjoy!