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Math in the News

By Wendy Petti


Who needs word problems when the news is rich with real-life math problems?


Students find math more meaningful and relevant when they can use their math skills to better understand and analyze current events. Below are some practical suggestions for tapping into newspapers and online news sources as an integral part of your math program.


It's easy to keep an eye on the latest news at CNN, Yahoo, or Google News. Science Daily reports cutting-edge news in the realms of math, science, and technology. Articles archived in Science Dailys Computers and Math News section have a particularly strong mathematical component. Local newspapers often contain items of interest to students. Scholastic News Online pairs kid-friendly news stories with lesson plans, activities, and quizzes.


News articles tend to be written at a sixth grade reading level. Many of my fourth grade students would have found it difficult to understand the articles I shared if theyd read them independently. I've used these methods to help make the reading material more accessible:

Oral summary Sometimes, I just tell students the highlights of an article and write the relevant math information on the board, and then we analyze and discuss the data. I tend to use that approach when the main idea and the math content can be explained very easily, in a few sentences. Otherwise, I'd like my students to have something written -- for reference, highlighting, taking notes, and working with the math.

Written summary Sometimes, I compose a short summary of an article's main points in kid-friendly terms. I use the rest of the page to pose a few math-related questions. With that set-up, students can analyze the news article independently or in small groups.

Guided reading I frequently copy the text of online articles into word processing documents (along with the Web address, of course) so I can adjust the font size and spacing. By saving online articles as text documents, I also can ensure that I'll have access to them in years to come. Some online news sources may archive news for a few years, but not indefinitely, and AP news stories expire quickly. Typically, I print a copy for each student. They read along silently while I read aloud or students read aloud in turns. I ask them to highlight or underline the math they find in the article. We pause to discuss unfamiliar words and concepts. Sometimes we discuss the math as we come to it, and sometimes we "pull the math" after reading the whole article. After we've gone through the whole article as a class, the students sometimes continue their mathematical analysis in small groups.

Student oral report Another option is for a student to take responsibility for presenting a math-related news item to the class. Teacher and student can meet ahead of time to go through the article and agree on key points. As an option, the student also can prepare a few math-related questions to guide whole-class or small-group discussion.

A partially told story Withhold some of the math information until students have had a chance to discuss and formulate conjectures, then share "the rest of the story."


Keep two math news binders for the year -- one for news with a short "shelf life" and another for news items that might remain worthy of discussion for years after publication. Include in the binders the math-related questions connected to each article and possibly some samples of student responses. I also like to keep those materials in a news folder on my computer. To promote the home-school connection, its also helpful to post links to the articles and a summary of the discussion on a class Web page.

News with a short shelf life would include most sports articles and much political news. In the fall of 2008, my students were fascinated with election polls and news reports; they loved tracking polling trends, comparing polls in different states, and making predictions, and they got a crash course in percentages, pie charts, and line graphs in the process. Each student kept a copy of the articles and related math activities in a "real life math" section of their math binders. It was a worthwhile mathematical investigation, but I won't be able to use those materials in future years.

Some news items might intrigue students in future years or might be reusable with adaptations. Some dated items also might be worth saving for eventual comparison with updated news reports over time.

Here's an example of a story with a seemingly short shelf life that can be adapted for future use: Greeley Dealer Offers Savings on a Rainy Day (5/12/09)

Briefly, a car dealership offered to refund the full purchase price of any car or truck bought during a four-day period if it rained at least an inch during a 12-hour period on Memorial Day. That news item stirred lively debate in my math classes. We wondered:

  • What are the odds of this town getting this amount of rain?
  • How much did the rain insurance cost?
  • Did the promotion increase business enough to cover the cost of the insurance?
  • What would the weather actually turn out to be like on that date?

Students made predictions about the weather and justified their speculations about the insurance cost. After Memorial Day came and went, I called the dealership to get more information. The amazing thing was that it actually did rain more than an inch in town during the designated 12-hour time block, stirring great excitement at the dealership, but the rain insurance had been taken out on the weather station at the airport, where it rained only half an inch, so no one was able to get refunds on their cars. We learned that the rain insurance cost $10,000 and that sales did increase in the promotional period, but barely enough to cover the cost of the insurance.

Although this little item is no longer current, it still could be adapted for future students like this: "A few years back, a creative car dealer ran a special promotion. Let's see if you can predict how much it cost him and what the outcome was." Students still can have the fun of making predictions, because they can't determine the outcome from the news item itself.


We'll want to be sure our students understand the main idea of any news story we bring into class. Can they answer the 5 Ws -- who, what, when, where, why? With that established, as you discuss a news article with your students, ask:

  • Where's the math in this article?
  • How does math help us understand this news?
    It can be very helpful to ask students to make verbal comparisons or to draw a picture, diagram, table, or graph to represent their understanding of the math in the news story.
  • What questions or wonderings do you have about this news or the math in this story?

When appropriate, ask extension questions such as:

  • Can we make predictions based on the math in this news story?
  • What is your reaction to this news?
  • Are there other points of view that can be supported by these numbers or related information?
  • Can you connect this news to other information you have learned?

Let's test-drive these questions using a simple news item from Scholastic News Online: First Flute Found: Scientists Discover the World's Oldest Musical Instrument (July 8, 2009).

  • What's the main idea, and where's the math in this article?
    An ancient flute that is 35,000-years-old was found in a German cave. (It was in 12 pieces. It is 8 inches long and has 5 finger holes.) Scientists found a 40,000 year old statue among other works of art in the same cave.
  • How does math help us understand this news? (Can we express in words or pictures what the numbers in this story really mean? Can we connect this math to other knowledge?)
    The age of the artifacts helps us understand more about humans living long ago. 35,000-years-old is really old. The first pyramids of ancient Egypt were built less than 5,000 years ago and the wheel and writing were invented 5,500 years ago; this flute is 6 or 7 times older. It's older than the oldest cave paintings. (Relating these other events and constructing a timeline can help students grasp the antiquity of this flute.)
  • What questions or wonderings do you have about this news or the math in this news story?
    * How do scientists determine the age of artifacts? (This wondering can lead to a student-driven inquiry with more math connections.)
    * Why were humans making instruments so long ago, long before they had even invented the wheel or writing?

The news story on the first flute is an example of "timeless news." It doesn't really matter when the news was reported. Years from now, this little article still will inspire awe, even when it's "old news." In the news resource section near the end of this article, explore headline news that might have enduring appeal or that might be adapted easily for use year after year. As you browse, jot down your own questions or wonderings.

You can use or adapt the printable math news response page with nearly any news article.


The math found in current news won't always mesh with the math skills of your students. What can you do when the math is too hard? We can use it as a teachable moment for demonstrating the usefulness of such math skills as rounding, estimating, and drawing pictures.

Round and Estimate
Use place value concepts and estimation to help students work with large numbers in a news story. I wouldnt expect students to divide 35,000 by 5,500 to find out how many times older the flute is than the invention of the wheel. Instead, if we round to a "friendly number" (rounding down to 5,000 instead of rounding up to 6,000), we can compare 35,000 to 5,000. Because 5 x 7 = 35, we know that 5,000 x 7 = 35,000. Because 6,000 x 6 = 36,000, and 5,500 is halfway between 5,000 and 6,000, we can estimate that 35,000 years is about 6 times longer than 5,500 years.

Draw a Picture
Drawing a picture, diagram, or graph also can help students make meaningful comparisons. In our study of election math, I reproduced circles divided into ten sections to help students set up pie graphs of polling data so they could visualize percentages as parts of a whole. My fourth-grade students were able to get a handle on some applied fifth grade math skills in that way.

Use a Calculator
After making estimates, using a calculator to crunch the exact numbers in news articles is perfectly reasonable; it allows students to focus on the math concepts and applications even when the numbers themselves are daunting.


When students have regular exposure to math in the news, math becomes purposeful and the news becomes more accessible. Students begin to make bigger connections. They start to realize that "math is everywhere." They begin to pay more attention to current events and start to bring in news items their families have found meaningful. They begin to notice more ways that math figures into their daily lives. They begin to notice that math is used in validating every scientific study and they begin to wonder if perhaps math is science or science is math. They become more comfortable manipulating large numbers and stretching their math skills a bit. They develop higher-order thinking skills as they pose questions, synthesize information, and make predictions about the future based on statistics from the recent past. They become empowered mathematical thinkers!


Math-Related News

Money Math

Archaeology, Anthropology, Geology

Environmental Science

Systems Science
Math in the City Guest Column (5/19/09)
Zipf's law, the math of cities, has held true across the globe for the past 100 years. A similar law holds true for living things.



English Getting Its Millionth Word Wednesday? (6/9/09)


Read all about it! Learn more about incorporating current events into the curriculum and follow great links in these additional Education World resources.