Math in Context

by Anna Cavallo
Associate Editor

Show of hands: how many of you know or remember how to integrate a function? For me, calculus fell in the “use it or lose it” category, and thus I lost it sometime after my first year of college. But Steven Strogatz’s recent series of math columns in the New York Times were a vivid reminder of how much calculus fascinated me. I even have a math team T-shirt with the symbols Σ α ∫ Γ (sigma, alpha, integral, gamma)—meant to look like “East,” my high school—a relic of my enthusiasm while first exploring calculus. (I can’t bring myself to wear this shirt anymore, though I also can’t bear to get rid of it. The back features funny sayings riddled with suggestive math puns.) I have a nostalgia for calculus as if it were an old friend I’d lost touch with. The math I now use daily is extremely basic by comparison, though quite handy. I estimate travel times. I mentally calculate my running pace or distance. I add up the change in my wallet for a trip to the vending machine. Derivatives and integrals seem almost as mystifying as they did on the first day of Calc I.

For young students, each new math concept—be it adding and Clock Struck Onesubtracting time or understanding pi—may at first be as perplexing as calculus is to a newbie. But putting math in context can give it relevance and help make it approachable. This could be having students use toy clocks; it could be a fractions lesson with pizza slices; it could be a board game involving play money. Books in Hudred-Dollar Robberseveral LPG imprints also put math in context, using entertaining illustrations and stories or verse. The Clock Struck One, part of the Math Is Fun! series from Millbrook Press, takes early readers on an animal chase hour by hour. And the Manga Math Mysteries, part of Graphic Universe, present highly visual adventures in which kung fu students use math to solve mysteries. (They can do some pretty cool kung fu moves, too.)

My Calc 1 teacher gave us blobs of play dough to mold and revolve while we were learning to find the volume of solids of revolution. To introduce the chain rule of derivatives, in which you unpack components one by one, she brought in matryoshka dolls. (She was a fantastic calc teacher, needless to say.) I would say I wish we also had graphic novels, but perhaps showing all the steps to solve a problem at that level would make for a less-than-thrilling visual.

Everyone learns differently. A textbook is enough for some. But putting math in context can help all students solidify their grasp on a concept, so that they are ready to use it in daily life (“Can my allowance buy this?”) and also ready to move to more advanced concepts—and someday, maybe even enjoy the wonder of calculus.