Monday, March 29, 2010

Real Life Math Lesson Using the U.S. Census

Turning the U.S. Census into a relevant, real life math activity is about as easy as filling out the actual questionnaires--and that is more or less what you're going to have your students do.  Then, there's a lot that can be done with the data you collect.

First, download the 2010 Census Questionaire from the U.S. Census Bureau website.  While you can certainly collect and analyze this information without the form, having them use a copy of the real thing makes this a more authentic activity (and might remind them to tell their parents to fill it out at home).  The form really doesn't take long to fill out--even if you have a lot of people living with you--and of course students can only fill out as much as they know any way.

Start by dividing students into groups and having them fill out the forms together.  They can skip the phone number and last names for the other people in their house, but they should be able to check off and fill out everything else.  In their groups, students should tally totals of the number of people living in all homes as well as the number of people by age, sex, race, and relationship.  Then, have the groups share their totals with each other, so that everyone should have a complete set of data.

Now it's time to analyze the data.  There are a lot of options for what to do from here, but I have a few suggestions:
  • Find the mean, median, mode and range for age.
  • Construct a stem-and-leaf plot, box-and-whisker plot or simple histogram to represent the age data.  
  • Convert the raw data for sex, race and relationship into percentages.  Ideally they would construct pie graphs to illustrate the data.
  • Find and graph totals for these age groups 0-12, 13-17, 18-25, 26-34, 35-44, 45-55, 55 and up.  The data could be graphed by totals or percentages.
  • Using the most current population estimate for your community, use proportions to extrapolate numbers of people by age, sex and race for your entire town or city.
  • Compare your data to the 2000 Census or other recent surveys on the American FactFinder website.
If you teach multiple classes per day and do this activity with each of them, consider adding one more day to this lesson and having students analyze the combined data for all of your classes.  I think that through this entire process, students would be very interested in what they were finding and willing to do what might otherwise be looked upon as tedious work.  In addition, you can go back later and ask very specific questions about the data that your students collected.

After the activity, I would ask a series of questions to help them draw conclusions about the data--a vital skill for standardized tests (among other things).  For example:
  1. According to the data, what is the largest age group in our community?  What is the smallest?
  2. Is this data we collected an accurate sample of our community?  Why or why not?
I feel like we're just barely scratching the surface here.  What else could be added to this activity?  Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.