We teachers of mathematics constantly have our legs kicked out from under us by the society we live and work in. We are charged with providing students the skills and understandings they need to be numerate citizens, while at the same time, those very same students are regularly bombarded with a not so subtle message that mathematics is difficult to understand and unrelated to their lives. How many times has an ADULT you know told you (or their own children) how much they hated math, how they only understood math before they "got to algebra", or otherwise derided mathematics.
In order to overcome these misconceptions about the relevance of mathematics to everyones' lives, I've tried for a long time to teach mathematics through a set of contextualized problems rather than as a set of isolated skills. Students are more apt to understand new (or not so new) concepts and to retain their understanding when they can make connections between the new mathematics and what they already know about the world they live in.
In the past, I have used hands on labs, "realistic" word problems, and graphing technology to help students make these connections. This year, I decided to try to make the connection even more direct by using real, current news stories as the basis for some of our problems.
The first story that really caught my attention in this process was the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Hearing about the situation unfolding on the radio each day I couldn't help but be reminded of the classic related rate problems about how the area of a circle changes as its radius changes by a known rate. It was late in the school year and my precalculus class was getting into a bit of a rut, so I made the decision to shake things up a bit with a math problem that really was based on a "real world problem".
After doing a bit of research on the details of the situation at the time, I decided to pose the problem in this blog post. I felt that to make the problem accessible, and to ensure it got at the concepts of related rates I needed to introduce some simplifications, which you see in the post.
My students LOVED this problem! Every student was deeply engaged, but I noticed one boy in particular, who had been kind of lackluster all year all of a sudden was completely hooked, and working as hard as I'd ever seen a student work at a math problem. He said that the realism of it made it worthwhile for him, that he never had bought into his teachers explanations of how math "could" be used, and that this problem really made the math matter for him.
In addition to the way the problem drew the students in, the problem was messy, which was really good for my students. The task required that the students really problem solve. The units were really unusual (barrels, micrometers,...) and the students really seemed to enjoy having to research what these units were.
Since I started this late in the school year, I didn't have time for many more problems. I managed to fit in two more. One, about the proposal for a "soda tax", I used the same way, using the story as a data source and writing some problems around the data. The other, about Vermont's legislation banning texting while driving I used simply as a hook for an experiment and data analysis activity I had already planned long before I saw the news item. It was good to see that this "Math in the News" process can be used in two ways: One is to provide for spontaneous problem solving opportunities in which students must decide what knowledge they must apply to a novel problem; and the second is to provide scaffolding around a learning activity that fits into a pre-determined place in my curriculum.
I've continued to look for news items and blog about how I would use them, in hopes of training myself to quickly see stories with potential for math problems. When I look for a story, the only criteria I have is that it has to be able to be analyzed with high school level mathematics. I don't want to force the mathematics onto a story, but rather to have the mathematics emerge clearly and naturally from the story.
Readers: Keep me in mind as you read the news this year, and send me a note if you see a story that could be integrated into high school mathematics problem solving. It's be fun to collaborate with some other teachers in the edublogosphere and create something together.