Making Math Visual

The abstract concepts of mathematics, usually expressed through symbols and un-common vocabulary, can frustrate the visual learners in your middle school classroom. Here is where the computer can become a powerful teaching tool. Such commonplace but abstract concepts as fractional equivalence and the “size” of large numbers can be made visual through technology. Students can interact with virtual manipulatives to change algebraic variables on a balance scale, or rotate a 12-sided solid to see its regularity and symmetry.

Below are a few examples of what I mean. If you have found other sites that make math visual for your students, please use our comment box below to share them with other teachers!

The MegaPenny Project
This site shows arrangements of large quantities of U.S. pennies. It begins with only 16 pennies, which measure one inch when stacked and one foot when laid in a row. The visuals build to a thousand pennies and in progressive steps to a million and even 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 covered (if laid flat). The site can be used to launch lessons on large numbers, volume versus area, or multiplication by a factor of 10.

The Pythagorean Theorem
This site invites learners to discover for themselves “an important relationship between the three sides of a right triangle.” Five interactive, visual exercises require students to delve deeper into the mystery; each exercise is a hint that motivates and entices. The tutorial ends with information on Pythagoras and problems that rely on the theorem for their solutions.

Fraction Sorter
Using this applet, the student represents two to four fractions by dividing and shading areas of squares or circles and then ordering the fractions from smallest to largest on a number line. The applet even checks if a fraction is correctly modeled and keeps score. A visual support to understanding the magnitude of fractions!

Algebra Balance Scales — Negatives
This virtual balance scale offers students an experimental way to learn about solving linear equations. Blue blocks represent positives and red balloons represent negatives. The student solves an equation by adding or removing the blocks and balloons, while a record of the steps taken, written in algebraic terms, is shown on the screen.

Geometric Solids
This tool allows learners to investigate various geometric solids and their properties. They can manipulate and color each shape to explore the number of faces, edges, and vertices, and to answer the following question: For any polyhedron, what is the relationship between the number of faces, vertices, and edges?

Transmorgrapher 2
Another way to “explain” geometric transformations! Using this applet, students explore the world of translations, reflections, and rotations in the Cartesian coordinate system by transforming polygons on the plane.

Cynthia Lanius’ Fractal Unit
This unit developed for middle school students begins with a discussion of why we study fractals at all. Lessons then provide step-by-step explanations of how to make fractals, first by hand and then using Java applets—an excellent strategy! But the unit goes further; it actually explains the properties of fractals in terms that make sense to students and teachers alike.


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 11/10/2011.

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