Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Math in the Real World Project

Early last year, when I first started teaching Algebra I, it was clear to me that my students didn't see the value of what we were doing. One reason was the apparent lack of real world applications for our often tedious work. It reminded me of being in college and discussing with my fellow history majors what exactly we could do with our degree besides turn around and teach it to someone else. So I set out to create a project that would prove to my reluctant mathematicians that the motto of the CBS drama Numb3rs was true: We All Use Math Every Day.

We needed to break out of our classroom routine, so I thought an online research project on jobs that require math skills would serve that purpose as well. I didn't realize how easy it would be to create a compelling project until I went to, searched for keyword algebra, and had to sort through hundreds of results. I was impressed by the range of careers and employers. There were a lot of teaching jobs among the results, however, which is the last thing I wanted my students to focus on.

So I asked my students to find 10 non-teaching jobs that required math skills. I gave them 5 job search engines to use:
  1. Monster
  2. Yahoo! HotJobs
  3. CareerBuilder
  4. Dice
I told them to search only for "algebra" or "math". I created a graphic organizer for students to record the information they found, especially what the job entailed and what math skills were required. I included a set of reflection questions at the end of the project, to hammer home the main ideas:
  1. List some ways you could find out more information about jobs you were interested in.
  2. Which job did you find the most interesting? Explain why.
  3. What do you think is the most important thing you learned through this project?
  4. Is there anything you think you now want to know more about based on this project?
I enjoyed reading answers along the lines of "I didn't know that so many jobs need math skills!" and "I didn't know you needed math to do..." whatever career they were interested in.

This year, I didn't get the same "why do we need to know this?" feeling from my students, so I held off on this project until the end of the year. The project remains mostly intact, with a few key changes:
  • Removed Monster from the list of websites (too slow, too many requests to register when searching) and replaced it with Indeed, a job metasearch engine.
  • Added a space in the graphic organizer for Degree Required. I know that many students failed to realize that needing math skills didn't necessarily mean graduating from college with a math-related degree.
  • Added one more question to the Reflection Questions: What was the most surprising or unexpected job you found in your search results?
  • Encouraged students to seek jobs in a career they were interested in, instead of jobs located in or near our state (I think the former is far more relevant to them than the latter).
This project requires about two 45-55 minute periods in a computer lab or library with internet access. You could reduce the number of jobs you ask students to find to reduce the amount of time required, but requiring 10 jobs forces students to search more and discover a wider range of careers.

Downloads: original version, 2008 updated version

This project and many others are my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom. Click the Ten Cheap Lessons tag for more posts.