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Count on the Census for Math Lessons!

Lesson Planning ChannelTaken every ten years, the United States Census is an event of epic proportion! Through this counting of each citizen, the government determines not only our country's population but its diversity as well. Lawmakers use the data to allocate federal funds and apportion seats in the House of Representatives. If you have been looking for a way of getting your students excited about real-life applications of mathematical concepts, you can count on the census!

"I was interested in finding a way to bring the Census 2000 into the classroom," Paula R. Don told Education World. "Collecting and analyzing data is a key math standard seen throughout grade levels, and I thought the census was a way to teach not only math concepts but geography as well."

As a technology facilitator for the School District of Philadelphia, Don feared that younger students might not have the "number sense" to deal with the large sums that the census would involve. She had a creative solution, though.

"I thought that a good place to start would be to create our own national census that would allow the kids to collect an authentic pool of data and deal with a subject area they enjoy and can relate to while still retaining the richness of the math and science and geography content areas to work with," Don explained.


Although the idea of a pet census might surprise some people, Don found it a perfect means of providing a challenging, hands-on data collection experience. Once students collected the data, she realized, the data pool would be an excellent resource for integrating technology by using spreadsheets and graphing programs. The Internet could be used for research on geographic regions and analysis of the data.

"I wanted to provide teachers with an easy way to begin to integrate the Internet and e-mail into their classroom programs," said Don. "The National Pet Census Web site provides links to pet sites, census sites, offline activities, and suggestions for analysis of the data and is now publishing the kids' stories and thoughts."

Last June, Don's fourth-grade students created the data-collection form participants in the project use. The fourth graders determined the categories of animals and what they needed to standardize for later analysis. Now, participating schools deal with the material in different ways. Some write stories, some look at the data from a regional perspective, and many use spreadsheets and graphing programs to communicate their findings.

The hard work of Don, her students, and the project's participants have proved to be a winning combination. "The participants have loved it," stated Don. "For many it is the first Internet or e-mail project they have participated in. I hope they will see how the Internet can be a powerful tool for learning and can be easy and fun to integrate. The feedback has been very positive, with wishes to do the project again next year. I get two to three requests each week, still, from teachers wanting to participate. It is very exciting."

Don's pseudo-census has become a massive collection of data and a true sharing experience. "Depending on how extensively the teacher uses the data, students can see similarities and differences between classes all over the country," she observed. "They are sharing data in a context that makes sense to them and is fun to play with. They can make predictions and then see [whether] their predictions are proven. Cultural differences and regional [and] climate factors help students appreciate life in other parts of the country, while also pointing out shared interests in their pets."


A pet census is one method you may use to bring the census into the classroom, but there are many others. See how the following census documents can be classroom gems!

Take a census. The most obvious math activity related to the census is one that students most enjoy -- taking a census! Designing questions and surveying friends is a painless introduction to graphing and gathering facts. The U.S. Census Bureau Web site can help you create a census activity that will have your students making questionnaires and recording data with a smile. To match the current survey more closely, visit the U.S. Census Bureau. This resource focuses on the 2000 census form and answers many commonly asked questions about it.

Who and where. How many people live in the United States and how many of them live in your state? Students will find this data and more at Population Estimates. The pages in this section of the Census Bureau's Web site contain estimated populations for the 50 states and the whole country. You may use the data to have students compare state populations, determine the percentage of U.S. citizens living in your state, and rank states by population. For more fun, have your students design quizzes based on the tables for other students to solve.

Know your ZIP code. How many of your students can tell you the population of their city or town? If they know their ZIP code, the information is only a click away. The U.S. Gazetteer permits visitors to access census data about any area by ZIP code or by city name. Search on a place and get a listing that includes population, location, a link to a map of the area, and a link to related detailed census data. Your students can sharpen math and geography skills by finding the locations of various cities, rounding the decimals that indicate latitude and longitude, and marking them on a map of the United States.

A great state. Do you live in a great state? Why is it great? Cenus data shows the states that have the greatest number of people, identifies the median income earned by state households, and denotes the types of businesses found in the states. State and County Demographic and Economic Profiles puts all of that information in an organized set of charts that students may access. Instruct your students to investigate your state and a few others, such as those that border your state, and record facts from the economic profiles. What generalizations can students make about the differences between industries and populations among the states?

Time for growth. Time keeps ticking into the future, and as it does, the population of the world continues to grow. If your students want proof of this change, they need only visit POPClocks. These clocks demonstrate how quickly the population changes. One clock shows the population of the United States while the other keeps track of the growing world population. Over the course of a day, have your students log on to obtain new population data. Have them to subtract the former totals from new ones to learn the number of individuals by which the population has increased. How many new world citizens are born in a day? Can your students compute the rate of growth by the minute or the hour?

Census teaching masters. Check out two Education World teaching masters that cover math topics related to the census.

  • Pets on Parade This teaching master, designed for students in grades 1 through 3, introduces them to questions similar to those found on the 2000 census form. Students create questions they would ask for a national pet census and pose them to a few classmates. They graph the results and answer questions about their research as well as the census done by students who participated in the National Pet Census project.

  • The State of the States Fourth through sixth graders search census data. They compare state populations and answer math questions.
    1. California; 33,872,000; Wyoming; 494,000.
    2. California -- 247 > Michigan -- 224; Florida -- 238 Arkansas -- 190; Alaska -- 167 Maine -- 23.2, 8; Maryland -- 25.3, 6; Massachusetts -- 23.8, 7; Michigan -- 26.0, 3; Minnesota -- 26.6, 2; Mississippi -- 27.2, 1; Missouri 25.6, 4; Montana -- 25.4, 5.


Need even more ideas to incorporate the census into your classroom activities? Check out Taking the Class Census, a reproducible from Scholastic.


Population Education
Zero Population Growth provides this excellent resource for teachers who want to make the most out of population studies.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2000, 2002 Education World

From the Ed World Library

Updated 7/1/2002