BIG Numbers

Those BIG numbers fascinate, don’t they? I’ve watched 5th and 6th graders gathered around the teacher just to hear more about the size of a million, or even a billion. Ths article, Thinking Involving Very Large and Very Small Quantities, shows how we, as adults, often fail to comprehend such quantities. The article begins: “Intuitively a million is a lot more like a billion than ten is like one hundred, because our intuition has some grasp of ten and one hundred, but we have little grasp of what millions and billions involve. Fortunately, there is often a way to make intelligent decisions involving big quantities. Use arithmetic!” Topics here, which can generally be dealt with through just multiplication and division, include national finances, terrorism, airplane crashes and lotteries among others.

For your own classroom, I’ve looked for problems that may open discussion to large numbers. Please share your finds with your colleagues by posting comments.

How Much is a Million?
This lesson focuses students on the concept of 1,000,000. It allows them to see first hand the sheer size of 1 million while at the same time providing them with an introduction to sampling and its use in mathematics. Students will use grains of rice and a balance to figure out the approximate volume and weight of 1,000,000 grains of rice. The lesson, which involves solving an equation, can easily be adapted for pre-algebra middle school students.

Too Big or Too Small
This unit features three activities, but I’m recommending only the first of these. Here students explore whether one million dollars will fit into a standard suitcase. If so, how large would the suitcase need to be?  How much would it weigh? Figuring out real answers to these questions can promote number sense.

Making Your First Million
In this activity for grades 4-6, students attempt to identify the concept of a million by working with smaller numerical units, such as blocks of 10 or 100, and then expanding the idea by multiplication or repeated addition until a million is reached. Additionally, they use critical thinking to analyze situations and to identify mathematical patterns that will enable them to develop the concept of very large numbers.

The MegaPenny Project
This site illustrates the magnitude of large numbers by showing and describing arrangements of large quantities of U.S. pennies. It begins with 16 pennies that measure one inch when stacked and one foot when placed in a row. The next visual shows a thousand pennies, and in progressive steps the site builds to a quintillion pennies. All pages have tables at the bottom listing the value of the pennies on the page, size of the pile, weight, and area (if laid flat).

One Grain of Rice
Beginning with the famous story of the village girl trying to feed her people, the lesson involves students in the mathematics of exponential growth. Students work collaboratively to come up with a bargaining plan to trick a raja into feeding the village using algebra and estimation. The complete activity includes the development of an exponential equation, but just following the growth of the number of rice grains throughout the story gives a good introduction to exponential growth. Questions for students and ideas for assessment are provided.

Finally, from the Figure This! collection, developed especially for middle school students, come these short but interesting problems on working with large numbers. Each question contains a hint on how to get started and a complete mathematical set-up on how to solve it.

How Fast Does Your Heart Beat?
If you started counting your heartbeats at midnight on January 1, 2000, when would you count the thousandth beat? The billionth?

How Much is Your Time Worth?
Would you rather work seven days at $20 per day, or be paid $2 for the first day and have your salary double for every day of the week

How Much Water Do You Waste?
If the faucet leaks 2 drops every second for a week, how much water goes to waste—enough to fill a glass, a sink, or a bathtub?

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/09/2012.

Close Encounters with Ratios

Understanding ratio and proportion, one of NCTM’s Focal Points for grade 7, presents a real challenge for all levels of middle school. Here are classroom-friendly ways to explore the topic from several angles. Each involves visuals or hands-on activities that bring students into close contact with the abstract concept of ratio. Let other teachers hear your ideas on teaching this topic! Post a comment below.

Constant Dimensions
In this carefully developed lesson, students measure the length and width of a rectangle using standard units of measure as well as nonstandard units such as pennies, beads, and paper clips. When students mark their results on a length-versus-width graph, they find that the ratio of length to width of a rectangle is constant, in spite of the units. For many middle school students, not only is the discovery surprising but also opens up the whole meaning of ratio.

Discovering the Value of Pi
Students measure the diameter and circumference of several circles, using a handy applet, record their data, and reach conclusions about the ratio of circumference to diameter. A genuine guided exploration!

Math-Kitecture
Math-Kitecture is about using architecture to do math (and vice versa). Activities engage students in doing real-life architecture while learning estimation, measuring skills, proportion, and ratios. In Floor Plan Your Classroom, for example, exact directions are set out and illustrated on how to make a copy to scale of your classroom.

What’s My Ratio?
What would happen to a picture in the pocket of someone who is shrunk or enlarged? This question hooks students into a study of similar figures. As they compare the measurements of corresponding parts of pictures that have been either decreased or increased in size, they can investigate concepts of similarity, constant ratio, and proportionality.

Figure and Ratio of Area
A page shows two side-by-side grids, each with a blue rectangle inside. Students can change the height and width of these blue rectangles and then see how their ratios compare — not only of height and width but also, most importantly, of area. The exercise becomes most impressive visually when a tulip is placed inside the rectangles. As the rectangles’ dimensions are changed, the tulips grow tall and widen or shrink and flatten. An excellent visual experience!

Capture-Recapture: How Many Fish in the Pond?
To estimate the number of fish in a pond, scientists tag a number of them and return them to the pond. The next day, they catch fish from the pond and count the number of tagged fish recaptured. From this, they can set up a proportion to make their estimation. Hints on getting started are given, if needed, and the solution explains the setup of the proportion.

Size and Scale
This is a challenging and thorough activity on the physics of size and scale. The final product is a scale model of the Earth-moon system, but the main objective is understanding the relative sizes of bodies in our solar system and the problem of making a scale model of the entire solar system. The site contains a complete lesson plan, including motivating questions for discussion and extension problems.

Scaling Away
For this one-period lesson, students bring to class either a cylinder or a rectangular prism, and their knowledge of how to find surface area and volume. They apply a scale factor to these dimensions and investigate how the scaled-up model has changed from the original. Activity sheets and overheads are included, as well as a complete step-by-step procedure and questions for class discussion.


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/03/2012.