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 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.

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