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Math Your Students Will Use in Real Life


The cashier said, “Your total is $103.05.” I looked down at my calculator and saw 98.14. I just knew I had not missed adding a single item. I would later learn that my total was off by almost $5 because of sales tax. As a child, I shopped for groceries with my mom every two weeks. I was in charge of the calculator. I added up the price of each item in our cart to be sure we stayed within our budget. At the grocery store, I learned about sales tax, percentages, and rounding to the nearest penny. By the time I encountered those concepts in a math class, I was already familiar with why they were important. In fact, I was already pretty good at estimating my state’s 5% sales tax in my head. Soon, I had mastered it and could give my mom the exact total before the cashier could ring up all our purchases. For me, it was a game. I never realized how much I was learning.

STEM activities in math class have the same effect on students. They need a reason to learn that is more than academic performance. It is easy to get hung up on covering more material at the expense of time-consuming projects. But STEM activities have a significant return on investment, which makes them well worth the time spent preparing and conducting them. If you have taught math, you have heard the question, “Will I use this in real life?” STEM activities are one of the best ways to connect math concepts in the classroom to real life application.

Planning for STEM Activities

Choose STEM activities that appeal to students.

For example, the Math 4 textbook includes an activity in chapter 3 in which students build cell phone holders out of LEGO bricks. They need to design a functional model that meets all the criteria for a cell phone holder. They also need to determine the cost of the bricks to make and sell their design for profit. LEGO bricks and cell phones appeal to most kids, making this activity a great choice.

Choose STEM activities that are relevant to students.

The Math 4 program also includes a STEM activity for designing a survey and reporting the results graphically (Ch. 9). In the example, the survey is about new playground equipment. If your school has other projects going on that would make good survey topics, adjust the activity to fit your school. If someone plans to use the survey results, your students may be more motivated to produce their best work.

Choose STEM activities that will encourage creative thinking.

As much as possible, avoid projects that are too prescriptive. Allow ample opportunity for students to follow different paths to arrive at their answers. You may even want to leave out some object or piece of information. Students may realize on their own that they need it, or you can ask them, “What else do you need to be successful?”

If you choose to develop a STEM activity on your own, remember to design a rubric. Think about the learning objectives for the activity and determine how you will assess them. Share the rubric with students so that they know the expectations of the project and can work to meet them along the way.

Conducting STEM Activities

STEM activities, like science labs, are great opportunities for group projects. Students benefit from working in groups because they can work together to find the best ideas. An activity may take more time than other math lessons, but it is time well spent. Consider allowing the project to extend multiple days so students have extra time for ideas to develop.

For activities like building a pasta car (Math 4, chapter 10), provide a variety of materials for students to choose from. As much as you can, try not to restrain students’ creativity. Keep an open mind as you watch students work and encourage creative thinking that deviates from what you anticipated. As long as students satisfy the objectives of the instructions and rubric, allow them the freedom to explore alternatives.

At some point, students may get stuck. Be ready to guide them by asking questions that stimulate creative thinking. Better yet, see if they can come up with some good questions to ask. Learning to ask good questions is an important outcome of any STEM activity.

Assessing STEM Activities

In math class, getting the right answer is usually important. Use STEM activities as a break from the “right answer” mentality. The best activity is one in which the students must use math to get them to the finish line. But the math involved in reaching the finish line may not be evident in the final product. The desire to create the fastest pasta car may motivate students to measure the car’s speed accurately. The related math lesson covers measurements and time—concepts students will have to understand to complete the STEM activity.

The activity includes an extra layer of fun and play to enhance the learning experience for all students. The rubric should not focus on a specific expected outcome but rather on the components of success. For example, the students must build a pasta car that moves down a ramp. It does not need to be the fastest or prettiest car. The students should be able to measure the car’s distance and speed and then evaluate which group’s design was best. They do not need to design the best car. The rubric should also place value on students’ reflection on the project—what ideas failed, why, and what to try instead.

Real Life Application

STEM activities give students a reason to learn math to accomplish other tasks they enjoy. Many math textbooks incorporate word problems to simulate real-life application. Students usually do not enjoy word problems. Chances are, they simply do not have a personal desire to know the answer. STEM activities provide an opportunity to shape the students’ biblical worldview by addressing ethical questions related to the project. Using STEM activities in math class will combine real-life application and a biblical worldview with a student’s need to know. The result will be students who think biblically and creatively and understand math concepts. And maybe they will stop asking if they “need to know this in real life.”

By Valerie C. Coffman, 2021