Real World Math Ideas

Posted by Big Universe on Aug 5, 2014 5:32:34 AM

Everyone who has ever taught a math class has at some point (possibly many points) heard some variation of the question: “Why does this matter?” Or “When will I ever see this in the real world.” It’s a hard inquiry to know quite how to answer. We know that architects, engineers, accountants, computer programmers, physicists, and (gasp) mathematicians, not to mention math teachers, use math all the time. We also know that math’s useful in order to be able to balance a checkbook, file taxes, or do any sort of financial planning, and that it’s also nice to be able to calculate a tip at a restaurant.

But iPhone apps being what they are, we know, deep down, that the student who asks these questions of us probably could survive as an adult without knowing much math. And maybe she even will. And we also know that unless the said student goes into a highly technical field, she never will need to know the quadratic equation again. Count on it.

So when faced with this inquiry, we sputter out some answer that is never good enough and then tell her to finish the assignment because here and now, her grade does depend on knowing some math. We suspect, or we wouldn’t be teaching it, that the whole question is misguided. Isn’t math, after all, really a thought-process? A new and exciting way of looking at the whole world? But how often do we really stop and ask ourselves the question? Where is math in the real world? Why is it important?

I’ve thought a lot about this question. I even designed a whole “Real World Math” class in response to it. And I’ve come to believe that it’s not so much that a student needs math in order to become a healthy, fully-functioning adult. But, rather, that understanding math, seeing where it is in the real world, and knowing how it can be used adds a layer of incredible richness to life. It’s like the best homemade cream cheese frosting ever: it’s true that you can have the carrot cake without the frosting, but would you want to?

If you’re looking for it, math is everywhere. I come from something like 50 generations of hand quilters. The geometry involved in inventing a quilt pattern is sometimes mind-boggling. But pattern-makers and clothing designers must also know quite a lot of geometry. Whether they realize it or not, illustrators and comic book artists who first make dummies must use the concepts of ratio and proportion in order to create their full-size artwork. Geometry and trigonometry are intricate parts of designing and building a house. Trees, coastlines, and the night sky are all beautiful examples of fractals . . . I could go on.

But I won’t. Instead, I’ll leave you with a few ideas for bringing the real world into the math classroom or vice versa.


1. Have a Shape Scavenger Hunt—The Kindergarten through 5th grade Common Core Standards in Math require students to recognize and be able to classify shapes based on various characteristics. One way to deal with these standards is to compile a list of shapes you want your students to recognize. Have them define or draw the shapes on their papers before you go outside, then set them loose in a confined area (playground or park, for instance) to scout out the shapes themselves. You can have them do a separate scavenger hunt for man-made and naturally occurring shapes (can they find an octagon that isn’t a stop-sign? Or a triangle that isn’t part of a park bench?) Then wrap it up with a class discussion or writing exercise to solidify what they’ve learned. *Bonus: this activity is GREAT for kids who have ADHD.


2. Create a scale model of the solar system—This one is a Ratio & Proportion exercise with a fair bit of Number & Operations thrown in and some Geometry, for good measure. Line up spheres of different sizes from a marble to a ping-pong ball to a baseball, basketball, one of those big exercise balls, etc. (Note: you can try this exercise with and without the Sun.) Ask your students: if the earth was the ping-pong ball, which would the other planets will be? Allow them to look up (or provide them with) the radii of the different planets. And give them measuring tools. Once they have settled on their planetary representations, have them look up the relative distances of the planets from the sun or the earth. Then, let them pick a scale, and go outside into a field or some really large space and ask them to make a scale model of the planetary distances. Did they pick one that was too big? Have them figure out what scale would fit in the space they have. (And for heaven sakes, please bring a camera, because this is going to be entertaining, and you’ll want to document it!)


3. The Stock Market Challenge—I could explain this at length, but it’s a whole game online, so I won’t bother. Basically students are given $100,000 of virtual money to invest in the stock market and they learn about interest, growth, modeling, etc. *Bonus: The teacher section includes many lesson plans that are Common Core Aligned.

Topics: Classroom Ideas, Common Core

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