Applying the Language of Mathematics to Daily Life

Math education at Touchstone integrates textbook and real-life learning; when students master, for example, the concept of calculating ratios, they then apply it to things going on at school and in their lives so that their newly developed skills gain personal meaning.

Sharon Borg, who teaches our 5th-grade level math class, sent this review recently to parents of students in her class. Sharon gives terrific examples of how, over the course of last spring, her students applied their knowledge to a wide range of relevant topics. She pointed out that students this age will ask, at the beginning of virtually any new topic, “why do we need to learn this?” — so Sharon was ready to show them exactly how they could use what they have learned:

  1. Pedometer Math – Integrating math with physical education (where we had a school-wide challenge of walking 10 million steps in 10 school days), we collected data on the daily steps taken by each student in our math class, and calculated the mean and median number of steps for the math class, as a way of projecting whether or not we would meet our goals. By looking at the ratio of steps to calories, we calculated how many calories we burned based on number of steps taken, and graphed the data on a point graph.
  2. If the World Were a Village – Based on this book by David J. Smith (2011), we explored how, by collecting and representing data about the world we live in (such as the composition of the world population by nationality, age, religion, and the distribution of resources, such as food and energy), we get a clearer understanding of the world and develop a “world-mindedness” that can help us solve important problems. Students created data tables and pie graphs, and considered how this information can be used. Looking mathematically at the very uneven distribution of food resources internationally, as well as in Massachusetts, helped students to see the importance of efforts such as the Walk for Hunger.
  3. Data Analysis – With today’s technology, large amounts of data are being collected, which we work to make sense of and use to answer social, political, and economic questions. Each student thought about a question that was important to them, collected data from people, print, or Internet sources, and then represented the data with a pie chart, indicating what question their data helped to answer. Questions students chose ranged from: What is the most popular game system in the US? to What is the composition of the Red Sox batting averages? to How much water does each of the appliances in your home use on average?
  4. Sustainability – Tying into work that Olga (our Spanish teacher) and Seth (a classroom aide) had done around sustainability, we calculated the cost to the environment of importing food from long distances versus buying locally. Each student calculated the difference in the cost to the environment (calculated as the distance the food traveled in kilometers multiplied by the number of grams of greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer based on the mode of transportation) for a food that came from a local source versus from a long distance. One student commented “Isn’t this sort of a personal choice?” Absolutely…as the kids realized choices people make individually make a collective impact.
  5. Touchstone Community School Diversity Study – The TCS Diversity committee surveyed the adults in our community this spring, to get a picture of who we are as a community and what we look like. Taking the data collected as a result of this survey, each student represented a question with a pie chart, and the committee displayed this work at school. Survey questions included: How do you identify politically? What is your favorite baseball team? What type of elementary school did you attend (public, private, parochial)? and Do you like to cook? Students interpreted the data. For example, 74% of the respondents were female, and 36% male. A student suggested that this is because women have more time than men to do things like answer surveys…an energetic conversation followed!
  6. The 6/5 Transit of Venus- The harmony between pure mathematics and science is quite perfect with the study of this celestial event. We watched a series of NASA videos that showed how the study of this transit led to the calculations of the scale of the universe in the past (starting with the definition of the astronomical unit (AU) or mean distance from the earth to the sun) and how it helps us to discover the possibility of life in other solar systems today.

Summer is a great time for families to share the language of math, whether it’s to calculate the time it will take to drive to a new destination, chart the average number of hours slept on a vacation week, compare the cost per-scoop of ice cream at various stands, or to predict the number of pages read by September 5th (when school starts again!).