Thursday, March 29, 2012

Real World Applications of Math

Dowel + mirror + paint + protractor + ruler =
a $300 mirror made for $10.
How do you like THAT math? 
"When are we ever going to use this?"  I hear this refrain from my middle school students quite a bit.  The obvious, though not satisfying, answer is "on the test next week".  A more thoughtful response, but mostly lost upon tweens, is that math, like any academic pursuit, builds different neural pathways that help us become rational, problem-solving adults.  However, truthfully, a lot of math in the upper grades they may never use (I'm looking at you, square roots of negative numbers and surface area of a triangular prism), but most of middle school math is used in real world situations.  Of course, we want kids to be able to balance checkbooks, make sure they're using coupons in the right order (not that you're allowed to use more than one coupon that often anymore), make change correctly, or to maybe one day use the circumference formula to determine if the drain snake is reaching all the way to the basement without having to uncoil it.  The latter scenario could probably only occur in a household with two math teachers in it.

If you'd like to make this pelmet someday,
you'll need math.
I just received notification that my first project on DonorsChoose is now fully funded.  I am going to have the students make miniatures.  Math and miniatures do overlap in that miniatures are scaled down versions of real world items.  Scale factors and proportions need to be considered in miniatures.  The students will research an item that they would like to create, and then they will find the dimensions of this item, scale the dimensions down, and then build them.  I'm hoping to appeal to the nearly universal love of mushing clay and having small things to cherish.  I hope they respond to it.  I used clay one other time, during a cross-curricular project on Mesopotamian math, where the students had to use cuneiform to create their own equations on a "tablet".  It enlivened a lesson about base-60 number systems (yawn) and Iraq (not the most popular country circa 2005).  They loved it, I enjoyed it, and it's a lesson I still remember some 6 or 7 years later. 

In my DIY decorating, I have had to use ratios (mixing plastic and rubber compounds), angles (to measure rays on a starburst mirror), create nets for boxes, transform patterns, etc.  I have always loved math; in the beginning because it was definitive and exact, then because I was good at it, and today because I appreciate the wonder and miracle inherent in this human invention in its interplay with the natural world.  Getting kids to appreciate math, especially in this day and age where entertainment is everywhere, "covering" the material for the standardized test is critical, and immediate gratification does not encourage subtle discoveries nor small victories, is the hard part.


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