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Making Math More
Relevant and Useful
NOTE: The
following are excepts and exercises from AddVentures for Girls:
Building Math Confidence, a curriculum with fun, handson
activities to help teachers expose middle school students to the exciting
world of math, available from WEEA. To order call 8007935076 or order
online. Code #2810, $17.00.
Many junior high school students do not see how mathematics is relevant
to their daily lives or how it will be useful in future careers. The way
we teach math does not often emphasize its usefulness to students. Because
the utility value of mathematics, as perceived by students, has been
found to be a strong predictor of enrollment in elective math courses in
high school, it is important that we stress the ways math can be used while
we teach math skills.
 Both male and female students who perceived math as useful to them
were more likely to persist in its study. (Pedro et al. 198 1)
 Perceived usefulness of mathematics is also related to math achievement
in high school. (Chipman and Wilson 1985)
 As early as seventh grade, boys rate math as more useful than do girls.
(Stage et al. 1985)
 Although gender differences seem to be narrowing, boys still judge
mathematics to be more useful for themselves than do girls.(Chipman
and Wilson 1985)
 In a study of senior honors English students, very few could think
of a way that they currently use mathematics in their daily lives.
(Franklin, Mueller, and Blankenship 1987)
The following suggestions should give you some ideas about how you can
introduce more information about math usefulness, while still using class
time to teach math skills and concepts.
Strategies
 Stress reallife problems in math. Search your classroom environment
for mathrelated problems that are relevant to students' immediate lives
and needs. For example, figure the percentage of students who choose
each leisure activity as their favorite. Determine the average number
of writing implements in each desk or the number of minutes available
for each student at the computer, given the number of students, computers,
and computer time. Or, compute the average number of minutes students
spend sleeping, watching television, or at school.
 Select a group of lunch preference counters who collect data for the
class to make graphs of daily and weekly hot lunch eating patterns,
and possibly even determine the cafeteria's best meals.
 When planning class parties, fundraisers, and soon, let the class
determine the amounts of ingredients, the costs of items, and the profits.
 Your local newspaper can provide the basis for many interesting, relevant,
and timely math activities. For example, you can use stock quotes
on the financial pages as the basis for an activity in which students
make "paper investments," track their stocks, make graphs, figure percentage
increase or decreases, and so forth. Articles about financial conditions
and businesses can serve as the basis for problems about earnings, interest
rates, discounts, etc. The sports pages are also full of statistics
that can be used as the basis of problems and activities with decimals,
fractions, and averages.
 Another excellent source of interesting data for class projects is
the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Your community library should have copies
of current reports. The Census catalog and guide for 1988 includes
abstracts and ordering information for reports on topics such as population,
transportation, agriculture, and business. There are also census publications
that provide stateby state data.
 Our math curriculum typically does not encourage students to ask,
"What purpose is served by solving these problems?" or "Why are we being
asked to learn this?" As much as possible, try to give your students
a sense of purpose about each math concept they learn. Show how the
math they are learning relates to reallife situations and how people
can and do use it.
 The poster When are we ever gonna have to use this? by Saunders
is another great resource you can use to help students see the relevance
of various math topics. The poster displays a matrix of 61 different
math topics by 100 occupations and is marked to indicate which occupations
use each math topic. It is based on research conducted by Saunders,
who interviewed people from a variety of occupations to determine the
kinds of mathematics they actually use in their work. The poster is
available from Dale Seymour Box 10888, Palo Alto, CA 94303, order number
D501344. In a 1980 article in the Mathematics Teacher, Saunders describes
the research recommendations for making junior high and high school
math more relevant and provides an excellent sample of word problems
specific to various occupations. The article also includes a table listing
math topics ranked by percentage of occupations that use these topics.
