Finding Real-World Math Problems

Photography by Michael Gil

First in the list of things that students say they want from education, according to eSchool News, is “real-world application and relevancy.” When it comes to math education finding these real-world examples seems more of a challenge. I tried myself to find some, was stumped, and had to go back through the Elevated Math lessons to find problems that kids might find relevant. Next, I searched into my own life to find some more. And then, after my consciousness was alert to this task, all sorts of ideas began to surface.

I was reminded of a time when my daughter was young. With her strapped to a car seat in Los Angeles’ rush-hour traffic, we filled the time with a game. The objective was to find as many Volkswagen Beetles as we could. (This was before the Punch Buggy game) We would call out the color of the car to get credit. A black VW Beetle (the first car I ever drove) was designated as a special one, and we got rewarded with a cookie if we found one. Interestingly, finding a black VW was rare at first, only seeing one every few days or so. But gradually the frequency of spotting one increased. Of course, more had not appeared in the city, but we had just become conscious of them. Even now, I notice a black VW Beetle every day.

The point I’m making is in order to find real-world math applications, we need to become conscious of them.  Once we do, we can then share them with each other and with our students. And they don’t all have to be practical, just interesting. I started reading the Jo Boaler book, What’s Math Got to Do with It? In the introduction a class is described where the teacher asks her class to work out “the time it would take for a skateboarder to crash into a padded wall after holding on to a spinning merry-go-round and letting go at a certain point.” Reading the description of students attempting to solve this problem made me want to go back to high school. Solving this problem sounded fun. And I’d love to know how the person, who tweeted me yesterday, had used Monty Python’s Holy Grail shrubbery sketch to demo maximizing quadratic functions.

Nor do the real-world applications have to be understandable. I heard yesterday on NPR radio about a physicist who had come up with a math formula for predicting insurgent attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is certainly beyond the level of middle-school math. Our nine Elevated Math lessons on statistics and probability (A19.1 – A20.4) will help with SAT levels of learning and prepare a student for a year-long statistics class, but they won’t explain this physicist’s formula. And according to my daughter even an AP class in statistics is not advanced enough to understand the math as sketched out here in the NPR news story. Still, a story such as this makes math immediate and real in everyone’s minds and is definitely worth bringing up in class.

Let’s all become more conscious of real-world math problems. Then share your discovery with others as well as with the kids in school and home. We suggest that you check out David Wees blog where he is gathering ideas that we all can use. Tweet them to #realmath. And join the Flickr group here. Together, we can make math relevant for our kids.

4 thoughts on “Finding Real-World Math Problems”

    1. Maryscott Glasgow

      Jahna, your Monty Python-based quadratics assignment is so clever, interesting and challenging! Have you used it with a class? If so, what were the reactions? Admire your creative energy and desire to make a difficult topic fun for many students!

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