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Real-world ‘rithmetic education

Sparking math enthusiasm with hands-on projects that connect to students’ lives
  • MATH MISSION—Math class turned into a job site for Ridgewood Community High School students who used their skills to build a house on campus that will be relocated and sold to a low-income family in the Chicago area. The class, called Geometry and Construction, makes math more relevant, the school’s STEM director says.
  • ELEMENTARY INGENUITY—First-graders at Mill Park Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, use beads to measure their teacher, Wayne Bund. In a similar hands-on exercise, students made graphs of how they get home from school.
  • NUTRITIONAL VALUES—Knowledge of area and perimeter guided these third-graders in drawing blueprints for a new restaurant. The class at La Verne Science and Technology Charter in Pomona USD decided their neighborhood needed an alternative to its many fast-food places.

At Ridgewood Community High School outside Chicago, students are building a home on campus. The project, part of a Geometry and Construction class, reflects administrators’ efforts to make math relevant through real-world applications.

“Our thought was, ‘It’s not that the students aren’t capable, they’re just not motivated and they’re not interested,’” says Eric Lasky, head of Ridgewood High’s STEM division. “We wanted to provide more motivation and a reason for them to learn math.”

Math and construction teachers co-teach the Geometry and Construction class. Students started with a scale model, and then built the actual walls and installed the plumbing, electrical, roofing, windows and siding. The next task will be to sell the home to a needy family and move it off campus to a permanent spot.

“In math, they use the trig to calculate the angles but in construction they use ratios,” Lasky says. “So the students learn both ways, and have some choice in which way they do it when they’re doing the actual build.”

A similar class, Algebra II and Business, inspired senior Michelle Kazmierczak to launch a baked goods company. She says linear equations were one of the most important skills she learned. “I had to figure out how much it would be for one batch and if I made extra—per price of cake pop—how much would the rate of change would go up, ” she says.

For example, making a batch of vanilla pops costs $6.78 while chocolate is slightly more expensive, at $8.44. The math also allows her to determine which baked goods make the most profits—profits she plans to use to help pay for college, where she wants to study business and the culinary arts.

“Many students will say, ‘I never liked math’ or ‘I wasn’t good at it,’” says Jennifer Kelsall, superintendent of Ridgewood Community High School #234. “Now, they have an understanding of what they would traditionally learn sitting in a classroom and how they can use it.”

Ideas for real-world math application

  • Design a restaurant floor plan
  • Build a model home
  • Sell a product for profit or charity
  • Design an app
  • Analyze local gas prices
  • Graph modes of transportation

Start making sense

Finding innovative ways to make math matter to students is key to improving competency in all grades. U.S. curriculum standards demand intense memorization of content and raw math skills, says Theresa Morris, mathematics performance assessment developer at Stanford University’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity.

“We hope students, over time, figure how those skills actually apply, but what we find is when they get to college or real-world situations, they’re actually not able to rely on those skills at all,” she says.

Third-graders at La Verne Science and Technology Charter (part of Pomona USD in California) wanted to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Mexico and Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico.

They looked at materials they had in their makerspace—beads, pipe cleaners and string—and decided to make necklaces, bracelets and keychains to sell to students this spring.

“They used their multiplication and division skills with money and with scheduling to figure out the best times to sell,” says their teacher, Jennette Aranda.

Aranda teaches these hands-on math lessons in partnership with Harvey Mudd College and the national IMMERSION program (which stands for Integrating Mathematical Modeling, Experiential learning and Research through a Sustainable Infrastructure and an Online Network).

Last year, as part of a math modeling project with IMMERSION, Aranda had her students design a restaurant for an empty lot in town.

“We wanted a new restaurant in our community that wasn’t fast food because we’re surrounded by fast-food places,” says Aranda. “We wanted a place where families could sit down, have a healthy meal together, and so the students planned everything out.”

Using their knowledge of area and perimeter, the students drew the floor plan with all the features they wanted to include in the restaurant.

“I feel that with Common Core math, it’s inherently difficult for a lot of the students to grasp,” she says. “When it’s introduced to them in a way that relates to something that’s happening in the real world, they feel like ‘Oh yeah, this makes sense to me because there’s meaning.’”

Creating teacher leaders

Wayne Bund teaches first-grade math with hands-on lessons and open-ended tasks that connect to the lives of his students at Mill Park Elementary School in the David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon.

In a data-collection project, for example, first-graders asked each other, “How do you get home from school—bus, car or parent pickup?” The students worked in groups to compile information about mode of transportation and to create graphs.

The lesson aligned with Common Core state standards that require first-graders to represent and interpret data. These exercises also excited students about using math to describe their own activities, Bund says.

Bund is one of 65 teachers participating in The East Metro Mathematics Leadership Project, led by Portland State University and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Mathematics and Science Partnership program. The three-year, $1 million grant focuses on developing K12 math teacher leaders in David Douglas and the nearby Centennial School District.

Assessment scores show that teaching math using open-ended questions and practical applications gets results.

Between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years, students whose teachers participated in the Leadership Project demonstrated significantly greater improvement in math achievement when compared to other students, says Nicole Rigelman, principal investigator on the project and professor of mathematics education at Portland State University.

“These instructional practices are not the norm in U.S. classrooms, yet they are the practices shown to make a difference in student understanding and achievement,” says Rigelman.

Approach spreads beyond math

The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics—a public, residential high school in Durham—launched a summer bridge program in 2013 to help 11th- and 12th-graders interested in STEM grasp hands-on math lessons.

Between 30 and 45 students attend the bridge program each summer to transition from rote memorization to the curriculum’s focus on real-world mathematical modeling. In one modeling assignment, students consider whether it’s worth driving to a gas station that’s off their normal travel route, but that sells gas for 10 cents cheaper.

Teacher Cheryl Gann has students design an app, and determine what data the app needs to recommend the best routes. Students, Gann says, quickly figure out the factors involved, such as how fast and what type of car you’re driving, the size of the gas tank, fuel efficiency, and the price of the gas and how far off the shortest route a station is located.

“It provides context to see how math can be useful outside of just solving equations,” Gann says. “And it shows them that there’s not always one answer or one approach to get to an answer.”

Compared to other students, bridge program participants have been more likely to engage in class discussion and offer ideas, she adds. “They seemed to be more comfortable talking about mathematics,” says Gann, “and they also became leaders, both in the math classroom and out of it, and were able to apply this in science and research classes.”

Elaina Loveland is a writer in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.