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Connecting to Math in
Real Life

By Wendy Petti


Who needs math games when a world of meaningful real-life fun is beckoning? It's easy and rewarding to connect to the real world in math class. On the Information Highway," we can find online collections of real-world math activities, math activities with a specific real-life focus (including natural disasters), online data sources, portals for joining or launching collaborative math and science projects, and more. The real-world resources assembled here are sure to excite teachers and students alike.


The math activity sites listed here are repositories of lesson ideas that can be explored offline without the use of computers.

Practical Uses of Math and Science (PUMAS)
This site offers 71 examples of real-life applications of math for upper elementary grades and above, including drawing/interpreting topographical maps, money math, creating math magic problems, measuring the heat of sand and rock; and much more. The collection can be sorted by grade range, key word, or title.

Math in Daily Life
This collection of lessons, geared for high school but adaptable to younger students, presents realistic applications of math skills and concepts, including managing credit cards, determining the economics of buying vs. leasing a car, accruing simple or compound interest in saving accounts, communicating data visually, calculating rectangular and rounded areas to determine the quantity of materials needed for home decorating improvements, and applying ratios, proportions, and measurement conversions in working with recipes.

Mixing in Math
This set of free activities helps teachers, parents, and after-school programs mix a bit of math into students' daily routines. An activity chart lists the math skills tapped by each activity.

Real World Applications of Arithmetic
This downloadable collection of 20 real-world math projects is adaptable for upper elementary- and middle-school students.

Money Math: Lessons for Life
This free four-lesson collection of real-life examples from the world of finance includes a teacher's guide with lesson plans, activity pages, and teaching tips.

National Math Trail
Students from around the United States created real-life word problems related to their communities. That three-year project is no longer active, but the archived questions remain a great source of real-life math problems.


You'll want to be connected to the Internet to explore the math activities below with students; the activities can be adapted for whole-class, small group, or individual investigations.

Real World Math
This site provides ideas and lessons for integrating Google Earth into the math curriculum; each activity description is accompanied by a related downloadable Google Earth file. Students can estimate great or small distances and then check actual distances using the Google Earth ruler. They can determine the area of such complex polygons as oddly-shaped crop fields. They can learn about network theory and generalize rules while drawing lines to connect islands. They can learn about spherical geometry while measuring the angles of triangles constructed on a global scale. They can explore mazes and labyrinths utilizing real-life Google Earth images. They can apply formulas for the volume of solids while viewing and panning around the Great Pyramids and other 3D buildings. They can express large numbers in scientific notation as they "climb" Mt. Everest. They can learn about proportion as they use exchange rates to find currency amounts while crisscrossing the globe.

FEMA for Kids (Disaster-Related Math)
FEMA presents a wealth of kid-friendly materials on each type of natural disaster. The disaster area relays information and statistics on each type of disaster in simple terms. In What's Happening Now, a clickable map brings up recent disaster information by state. In the games and quizzes area, youll find Disaster Math, a collection of word problems organized by disaster. One of the resources for parents and teachers is a listing of other disaster web sites.

NOAA Weather Education
The educational resources in this area of the National Weather Service include statistical data and summaries of severe weather by year.

Students apply math skills and concepts through online and offline architectural design activities, including "Floor Plan Your Classroom."

Plane Math
Interactive lessons and an online airplane design center integrate math and science.

Playing with Time
Visit the gallery and "a place in time" to examine speeded-up and slowed-down time sequences.

Music Through the Curriculum
Mix math and music to play with rhythms and notes, bringing fractions to life.

Road Sign Math
Look for "mathematically significant" road signs, for which at least one equation can be written using all the numbers in the sign(s). Although the site is no longer accepting new road signs, it's fun to look at the existing photographs of actual street and highway signs that meet the "Road Sign Math" rules. A class could develop their own collection of road sign math photos, adopting their own rules appropriate to their grade level. For example: Look for meaningful sequences or prime numbers.


Using authentic data sources, students can investigate their own math-related questions, analyzing past and current data to make inferences and predictions.

World Mapper
This intriguing site displays distorted world maps to give a quick sense of statistics on world resources and consumption of resources, health, education, income, disease, causes of death, natural disasters, economics, pollution, transportation, and lots more. On one map, a swollen Asia shows its proportion of the worlds population; on another map, a swollen United States shows its share of carbon emissions. Some maps are historical, so (for example) comparisons of population or wealth for different countries or regions can be made between 1500, 1900, 1960, 1990, and projections to 2015. Animations morphing between two maps or a sequence of related maps hit home with a huge "wow" factor. Maps also are linked to data files for numerical analysis, but the power of the site is the synthesis of that data into startling images that speak to all ages. The site's apt slogan is "The world as you've never seen it before." When we see the world in that fashion, we can't help but make connections and reflect on the imbalanced distribution of the world's environmental, social, and economic resources.

This map from shows the distribution of the world's wealth in 1990. Reprinted with permission.

Data Library at the Math Forum
The Data Library includes data sets that can be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets, collaborative data projects, and other data sources.

Earth Trends
This site is a comprehensive database with information on environmental, social, and economic trends.

The Data and Story Library (DASL)
This searchable collection of data files with summary "stories" models a variety of real world applications of statistics, some of which are appropriate in elementary grades.

Several sites provide population data:


Math takes on new meaning when students can collaborate with other students and professionals from around the world.

CIESE Collaborative Projects
Join projects involving global data collection and analysis at the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education.

Math Forum Collaborative Projects
The Math Forum lists a variety of collaborative data collection projects.

National Association of Math Circles
This site helps bring together mathematics professionals and students in an informal setting to work on interesting problems or topics, with the goal of exciting students about mathematics.


Check out the Education World features below linking to online data sources or other real world math sites.

Tracking Fall's Falling Temperatures
Students graph and analyze temperature changes over time using data they've collected and optional web-based weather resources.

What Did It Cost 100 Years Ago?
Students compare changing prices across a century using online data sources.

Get Real: Math in Everyday Life
This article links to many other sites featuring real-life math connections.


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