One of the most common questions math teachers hear from their students is, “why does this matter?” They are constantly trying to convince students that math is useful and could help them in their everyday lives. But it can be a tough sell. Word problems alone often feel contrived and students see right through them.
Thomas Petra has taught math at every level for more than 20 years and encountered dubious students at every grade level. That’s why he developed Real World Math, a free website with lessons based on Google Earth aimed at grades 5 - 10. “I was trying to show them actual applications of the math ideas that they see in the textbook,” Petra said.
Petra takes an inquiry learning approach to the Google Earth-based problems. “I want them to use the things they know already and I want them to learn new skills like critical thinking and problem solving on their own terms,” Petra said of his approach. To do that, Petra has developed more than 30 elaborate souped-up word problems based on downloadable Google Earth maps with additional information embedded at different points.
One lesson Petra did with middle school students helped them practice the distance formula: distance = rate x time. To get them practicing the formula and understanding what it means in practical terms, Petra developed a lesson based on the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. He mapped the 22 Iditarod checkpoints and had students calculate the time it takes their mush team to get to each stop. They drew cards along the way with misfortunes or luck that increased or decreased their speed, forcing them to recalculate.
Petra grouped the students on teams, competing to win the race. The cards that determined speed were random, so even the slower learners had a chance of winning. Petra said for the first time he had students that hated math getting to class early.