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Challenge + Fun = Math Achievement in Middle School


Curriculum Center

To help middle school students master complex math concepts, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education in 1999 launched the Figure This! campaign. The three-year initiative served up problem-solving challenges based on NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) standards. Today, the active portion of the Figure This! campaign has ended, but the challenges remain.

Cartoon characters sporting super-sized heads and their friendly pets welcome visitors to Figure This! Students can choose from 80 challenges, each designed to foster skills in algebra, geometry, measurement, numbers, statistics, or probability. The colorful graphics and relevant themes at Figure This! appeal to kids from ten to 14. Students who expect word problem drudgery instead find entertaining and practical diversions.

Beanie Babies collectors and traders will snuggle up to Challenge 16.

"Imagine that you bought a Beanie Baby for $6, sold it for $7, bought it back for $8, then sold it for $9. How much profit did you make?"

Sweet rewards await chocolate aficionados tempted by the tantalizing cookies illustrated at Challenge 12.

"Suppose you love chocolate. The top of each cookie is covered with the same thickness of chocolate. If you wanted to choose the cookie with more chocolate, which would you pick?"

Tycoons in the making will bank on finding out how much time is worth at
Challenge 7.

"Would you rather work seven days at $20 per day or be paid $2 for the first day and have your salary double every day for a week?"

Each challenge includes hints to help solvers get started. Solutions are clearly explained. Additional problems related to each challenge reinforce skills. Social studies, language arts, science, and general trivia connections enrich the background of each challenge.

Users can solve the challenges online, download them, or print them. Solvers can also request challenge books at 1-800-GO-SOLVE. Sixteen new challenges are slated for release this month.


Teacher Martha Morse sampled Figure This! challenges with her seventh-grade math students at Avon Middle School in Avon, Connecticut. She told Education World, "Active learning is what this Web site is all about." The students overwhelmingly echoed her positive response.

Allison P. said, "I liked it because the problems had graphics. There were buttons to help me get started and other ways to get help." Blake K. found the challenges "fun and creative." He added, "They also made me think." Heather M. liked the way the site "told you what you did right and wrong."

Sarah W. remarked, "It was cool to work off the computer instead of the math book. I liked having the answer just a click away." Joe M. found that solving the challenges could be a family activity. He reported, "My younger brother and sister had a bet over the answer to 12." Nicole S. was surprised by her reaction to the challenges. "It involved math and it was fun," she said. "I thought I would never say math is fun."


Math students in Martha Morse's class don't pack up their problem-solving skills when they leave her classroom. They also use math to solve everyday challenges beyond the schoolyard and at home with parents.

In order to buy enough paint for redecorating, Lauren G. determined the area of her bedroom. Nicole S. kept a tally of her clothing purchases to stay below the spending limit set by her mother. Tim D. interpreted the usual mileage pattern of his family car, and estimated the cost of filling the gas tank. Other students use math frequently to adjust recipes, count change, and carefully tally allowances.

Figure This! emphasizes the importance of family involvement. Studies show that parents who act as informal educators make a significant contribution to classroom success. To help parents participate in middle school, teachers can recommend the Family Corner suggestions for staying involved with math teachers and school math programs. There is also advice for homework help and support for overcoming math fear.

Families can find math activities for younger children just a hop, skip, and jump away at Helping Your Child Learn Math. This online booklet describes learning experiences everyday activities, such as cooking, shopping for groceries, or riding in a car, can provide.


Morse likes to offer her math students a "problem of the day." She commented, "I try to present students with a situation to be solved, much like a puzzle. When each situation is approached as a challenge, it helps keep students involved in the process. This is how skills are developed." Figure This! and similar programs provide the kinds of practical problems that keep middle schoolers interested in math.

  • If they've done their homework, students can use the information found in How Did I Get a C in Spanish? to explain their report cards to parents. Students also learn how math predictions can help them set goals and prevent end-of-term surprises. Vocabulary links and detailed computations make the answers easy to understand.

  • Cooking by Numbers uses a cookie recipe to illustrate the concept of ratios. Students use relationships between quantities as they learn to adjust ingredients and change recipe yields. Try this challenge with student recipes. Everyone in the class can help taste-test the results!

  • Converting recipes to metric measurements can add to the fun.

  • Technology buffs and future pilots will enjoy the tutorials on airplane design at PlaneMath Enterprises. New "employees" ride an elevator to eight departments, including forces of flight, propulsion, wing shape, and virtual flying. After they complete their "training," students apply math to design a virtual airplane to custom specifications. Join forces with the technical education teacher and look into building a miniature version that can actually fly.

  • Math at Home helps students calculate what leaving a light on actually costs. Do parents really have a reason to nag when kids forget to turn off the switch? How much money can people save by using fluorescent bulbs? Have your class answer these questions and chart the energy cost of lighting before and after starting conservation measures. Parents might even be willing to charge up math motivation by adding some energy savings to allowances!


The Figure This! campaign aims to raise public awareness of poor math performance and make student math achievement a top priority among educators, policymakers, and employers. More than ever before, even entry-level positions often require complex math skills. Middle school is a good time to start previewing the role math plays in job success. Open the door to your students' future of math competency by exploring the following sites.

Take a trip to British Columbia's Applied Academics to really experience Apply Lessons. Students can clearly see that math matters whether a person is a lifeguard, a volcanologist, a firefighter, a computer game designer, a golf pro, an aerospace engineer, a house painter or practices one of 20 other explored occupations. Career responsibilities are thoroughly explained, and students have a chance to put math principles into practice. Young athletes may enjoy Teeing Off with the pro to calculate swing velocity or want to compete n the lifeguard fitness events at Life Saver, Anyone? Math worksheets are provided for all the careers.


  • Online Math Applications!
    This remarkable student-generated site succeeds in teaching kids how to apply math to real-world situations. Problem-solving activities related to investing, music, history, science, and travel abound.
  • What Good Is Math?
    The practical problems written by three students from the University of Richmond make the answer to this question clear.
  • Aunty Math
    Elementary school-age children will love these math challenges inspired by stories about Aunt Mathilda. The DuPage Children's Museum in Illinois sponsors these math activities written by a teacher from Naperville, Illinois. She includes suggestions that modify the challenges for different kinds of learners.
  • Math Stories
    This site is an outstanding example of parental involvement. A father in California began writing these math word problems to expose his daughters to analytical word problems. He has successfully linked children's stories with math challenges and provides an extensive selection of problems for use at elementary and middle school levels.
  • Word Problems for Kids
    Word problems adapted from the Canadian Mathematics Competition for grades 5 through 12 are traditional exam questions. Hints and answers are included to help students practice math skills.


Middle School Teachers' Place
If there is heaven for middle school math teachers, this is it! This is the place to go to find Internet activities and projects, lesson plans, fun sites for kids, and math software.

Article by Joan Luddy
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 10/23/2009