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What Math Classes Do Architects Take in College?

by Laura Fletcher

The great architectural wonders of the world -- from the Great Pyramid to the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal -- are mathematical wonders. Calculus, physics and engineering are incorporated into an architecture student’s major courses, so those pursuing this competitive field shouldn't be afraid of math. Architects must be able to design beautiful buildings that take our breath away and design them so those buildings don’t collapse -- or sink into the ground.

College Prerequisites

Applicants to architecture programs will be expected to have a full four years of math in high school, as well as physics. Top architecture programs like Cornell University also prefer additional science courses, and even lesser-known programs like the University of Arkansas expect a minimum of 25 on the composite ACT. Fortunately for those who are shaky in math, there are a wide variety of study aides such as Barron’s and The Princeton Review that can help. Math lovers on the website Physics Forum report that practicing math is the best way to improve. The Khan Academy website has received wide praise for its innovative and effective free lessons in math. Tutoring programs, both free and paid, are also an option, and students can check with their school guidance counselor for assistance in finding tutors.

College Math

Most programs require that students take one to two courses in calculus. Calculus is a core math class that teaches students to plot, calculate and predict changes that they'll observe in the buildings and structures they design. Architecture students also take statistics and probability. In this course students create computer models that prepare them to understand the random elements that can affect a building’s geometric integrity, such as weather and material strength. Finally, linear programming courses build on the calculus and statistics training by teaching the design of computer models that can exhibit possible changes in a designed structure over time and with different factors.

College Physics and Engineering

Architecture students take physics because it allows them to have an exact, mathematical understanding of physical structures and physical movement. All architecture students must take courses on structural and environmental engineering to complete their majors. These courses are often called “Structure” and “Environment” and are administered by the architecture department. They build on the student’s previous work in math and science to help them understand how different shapes and materials work in different environments. For example, certain kinds of structures cannot be built in certain kinds of environments, such as marshland or sandy soils, and plumbing, electrical wiring and ventilation can only be installed in certain parts of a structure.

What You Can Do with Your Math

All architects work with teams of structural and mechanical engineers who help them complete their buildings, but architects sometimes come up with the critical mathematical solution that can make a beautiful building “soar.” For example, when the architect Jorn Utzon designed the famous opera house in Sydney, Australia, he wanted the roof of the structure to look like a group of sail boats with open sails. However, his lead engineer, Ove Arup, couldn't figure out how to build such a structure, according to Alexander Hahn of Inside Science. Ultimately, it was Utzon who found the solution, when he realized that cutting triangular sections of a sphere would provide the stability needed to make the sailboat structures last over time.

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