Some students embrace math as their favorite school subject from their earliest years and show incredible aptitude for it. Others struggle and come to regard it as a necessarily evil and a difficult-to-clear hurdle en route to completing their formal education. While not every child necessarily has a mathematical mind, the impact of mathematics on every area of life makes it easy to come up with math projects interesting enough to engage even the most math-shy kids.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The tricks to successful easy math projects include, firstly, scaling the level of difficulty to the class as a whole -- as "easy" means vastly different things to different children, and secondly, coming up with genuinely interesting, age-appropriate topics from which kids choose. Ideas like price graphs, the progression of world records through the years and learning the value of math in bank interest calculations and more.
Elementary School: Price Graphs
Introduce children between second and fifth grade to the concepts of simple two-dimensional graphs in a Cartesian-coordinate system.
Kids this age are already aware that items cost money, and that some items cost more than others because they have more value. Give kids a table that shows the average prices of three or four different common commodities like a pound of beef, a small car, a gallon of gas and a new basketball, by year and some large graph paper. After drawing a generic demonstration graph on the board, have them work in groups to plot the changes in prices over time on their own.
Have the children try to come up with reasons that prices tend to get higher instead of lower, and explanations for the different levels of price change for different commodities. A very simple description of supply and demand may be useful.
Middle School: World Records Progression
For a sports math project with a twist of sociology, have the kids cluster into groups of two or three. Offer a full list of track and field events to choose from such as the 100-meter dash, pole vault, 400-meter hurdles, long jump and a marathon, with each group picking a different event.
Give the kids in each group a printout of the progression of world records in their chosen event for both men and women -- available online through a simple search. Have them draw a graph for each sex showing the change in world records over time, with the points representing the men's and women's world records and the year in which they were set, to the present.
Have the students complete two parts: have them make predictions about what the records for men and women might be in 25 years and why, and secondly, theorize about the different shapes of the graphs for men and women -- as most event organizers discouraged women or prevented them participating in certain events even at the Olympic level until the 1980s and beyond.
High School: Bank on It
By this stage, most kids understand the concept of bank interest, have at least heard of the stock market and are aware that a discipline called economics exists. This project invites high school students to make connections between the strict math of economics and the human and other variable factors that play a role in the subject.
Have each student bring a news, magazine or credible website article to class on an economic topic of current interest that includes mention of facts and figures, but no explicit calculations. Ask each student to write a short summary of the math portion of the article and justify it with numbers. It is not important that the students get the calculations correct, as the lesson is in thinking about the financial and political world in analytical, objective ways.
About the Author
Kevin Beck holds a bachelor's degree in physics with minors in math and chemistry from the University of Vermont. Formerly with ScienceBlogs.com and the editor of "Run Strong," he has written for Runner's World, Men's Fitness, Competitor, and a variety of other publications. More about Kevin and links to his professional work can be found at www.kemibe.com.