A smiling student working on a laptop with a wall full of math symbols behind her

Activities That Integrate Math and Humane Education

by Marsha Rakestraw

If you’re as old as I am, you probably remember math word problems asking you about the speed and direction of trains.

Or geometry problems that asked you to calculate areas of objects drawn on paper.

Or probabilities focused on dice roles.

If you were lucky, you might have gotten to explore percentages in the guise of shopping.

What do these kinds of problems have in common?

For the most part, they have nothing to do with real life. And though the problems may be different, the kinds of math that many of our students are being taught today are still separated from our world.

As the editors of Rethinking Schools say, “Our children deserve to be taught math in ways that help make visible the ecological, social, and community issues that will shape their lives and their futures. They need math skills that help them understand and care for the planet and each other.”

Here are 7 of IHE’s lesson plans/activities that integrate humane education and math:

1.  A Gathering Crowd: Functions & Rates of Change

Is human population growth threatening to overshoot and jeopardize the earth’s carrying capacity?  If so, what can be done about it? In this activity, students will be able to: describe and model human population growth during the past 600 years with an exponential function, considering both the total amount of growth and average and/or instantaneous rates of increase; explain the strengths and limitations of modeling human population growth with an exponential function; explore and discuss some of the environmental, cultural, and economic impacts of human population growth.
Recommended for: grades 9 and up

2.  Financial Math: What’s the Deal with Debt?
In this lesson plan, students will learn to calculate a loan repayment size and complete an amortization schedule for two different lending scenarios;  compare the scales and details of two typical modern-day loan situations; and experience through role-playing some of the pressures and expectations faced by creditors and debtors within contemporary economic systems.
Recommended for: grades 9 and up

3.  Hear the People
This is a great icebreaker for any activity exploring the challenges and impacts surrounding our enormous and growing human population.
Recommended for: grades 4 and up.

4.  Not Enough Homes: Adding Up the Pet Overpopulation Problem
This activity helps young students hone their basic math skills while learning about pet overpopulation.
Recommended for: Grades 1-3.

5.  Risky Business: Exploring Probability Theory
Using a realistic scenario, students will be able to calculate basic probabilities pertinent to ecological and human-health concerns of industrial oil sands development in Canada; engage in active research of statistical data concerning the industrial development of Canadian oil sands; and produce a risk assessment and action plan presentation based on that research.
Recommended for: grades 9 and up.

6.  Too Many Kittens
What happens when a pregnant cat has kittens, and her kittens have kittens, and so on? Use this activity to help students practice their Algebra skills while learning about dog and cat overpopulation and exploring how spaying and neutering can contribute to the solution.
Recommended for: grades 6 through 8.

7.  Vanishing Rainforests
Use this activity to help students practice their math skills while gaining a real sense of how much rainforest is being destroyed and brainstorming what they can do to avoid contributing to rainforest destruction.
Recommended for: grades 6 through 8.

In a recent edition of their magazine, Rethinking Schools highlighted a couple of examples of integrating social justice into teaching math skills. “Whose Community is This? Mathematics of Neighborhood Displacement” uses high level math concepts to explore gentrification, banking, and the mortgage crisis.

“Beyond Marbles” looks at how one teacher, after years of teaching about percentages using marbles, decided to help his students explore how “statistics can tell powerful stories about the injustices in our society” by looking at the gender and race changes in make-up of the U.S. Congress over a period of years. Students then chose their own topics to explore percent changes.

Fore more resources about integrating math and humane education, check out our blog post 7 Resources for Integrating Math and Humane Education.

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