This publication, by Elizabeth Murphy, appeared originally in 1995 in "Teaching Mathematics" Vol. 22, No. 2, a publication of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association.
How many fish do seals eat in a year? How many times does South Africa fit into Canada? Which mountain is bigger: Mauna Kea or Mount Everest? How many kilometres of coastline does Louisiana lose each year? How much older is Canada than Israel? These are just some of the questions answered this year as part of a Stemnet Class Project. A small group of grade four students at Roncalli Elementary participated in an enrichment project entitled Cross Cultural Story Problems in Math from December '94 to May '95.
Students received story problems from Hawaii, South Africa, New York, Israel, New Orleans, Alabama and California and also wrote and sent their own problems to partner classrooms from these areas.
The project was interdisciplinary and relied on cooperative learning practices. Its aim was to improve and reinforce skills and concepts in Math, Social Studies and Language Arts. All story problems were based on descriptions of one's community or country. At Roncalli, the students wrote detailed descriptions of the Newfoundland climate, geography, government and fishery to name but a few of the themes. Here is an example of one of the problems written by the students and based on material found on the
World Wide Web. The students also telephoned the weather office to get actual measurements of snowfall accumulations.
Compared to other Canadian cities, St. John's is the foggiest, wettest, windiest and cloudiest. It has very few hours of sunshine. It has more days of freezing rain and wet weather than any other city. But Newfoundlanders are proud of their climate and they say that their city happens to have one of the mildest winters in Canada. Newfoundlanders live on, by, and from the sea. The sea keeps winter air temperatures a little higher and summer temperatures a little lower on the coast. This also means that the
re is changeable weather, more cloud, less sunshine and stronger winds. Newfoundland is one of the stormiest parts of North America. This winter, we have had a lot of storms and snow. School has ben closed a few times because of bad weather. In November, 35.4 centimetres of snow fell. In December, 86.6 centimetres of snow fell. In January, 152.3 cm fell. Now there is 81 cm of snow on the ground. The average snowfall each winter is 359 cm.
1. How much snow fell so far this winter?
2. What is the difference in the amount of snow that fell and the amount of snow that is on the ground?
3. What is the difference between the average snowfall for each winter and the amount of snow that fell this winter?
4. What is your climate like? Do you get much snow?
We received interesting answers to the last question. Our partners in Hawaii told us that they often go to school barefoot and that they usually go swimming each day at lunch time to cool off. Our South African partners responded by telling us that they were in the middle of summer and that their average temperature was about 27 degrees!
These problems were challenging to write. As an example, when the Roncalli students first tried to compose a problem about climate, they assumed they could ask their partners to total the daily summer temperatures over a five day period. Granted this could be done. However, the information produced would be, of course, meaningless. When the students were preparing a story problem on the sealing industry, they carefully read the pertinent information in the brochures from the Canadian Sealers Association.
Then, they compiled the description based on questions I had given them. So far so good. However, I really began to wonder where I had gone wrong when I read their "math" questions. "What does the word industry mean?" "What are the seal's main predators" These were the questions they had decided to ask for their "math story problem". It took some explaining, but finally they got on the right track.
Although it was more challenging to write than to solve the problems, students still had to work hard to come up with the answers to many of the problems received. This was especially true of the problems written by an enrichment class in South Africa. They frequently required us to compute averages, to consider percentages and to do problems that demanded quite a few more steps than students were used to. Fortunately, a volunteer substitute teacher was willing to come and work with the group of students
to provide them with the extra help needed to solve the more than fifty problems which were received.
Here are some problems sent to us by a grade three enrichment class in Hawaii:
There are seven major Hawaiian Islands. They are Hawaii, the biggest where we live, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu (the state capital and the most populated), Kauai, and Niihau. Now people travel by airplane because it is so quick. Problem: Pa'a and Willie wanted to visit all the Islands. How many airplanes rides did it take if they started on the island of Hawaii, then visited each island and then returned to Hawaii? Also, if they stayed for two weeks on each island, how long were they gone?
The Hawaiian Islands are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are very far from any other land mass or continent. Ancient Hawaiians travelled by canoes or in Hawaiian wa'a. Problem: Kurt travelled from the country of Mexico to Hawaii. He paddled 2500 miles in his canoe. If he averaged 50 miles each day, how many days did it take him to reach Hawaii?
These problems are not unlike ones which students might read in their regular Math text. The difference was that these questions were not being asked them by an anonymous text book. The questions came from a group of fellow students who wanted to tell their Roncalli friends about the place where they live and who were excitedly expecting a response to their questions. Of course, another difference between the problems in this project and those normally encountered in texts was the length. The interdisciplina
ry nature of the project meant that our focus was broad and our stories fairly long with a large amount of information. Students often had to read the problems over many times before deciding what information was necessary to come up with the solution. As well, all problems written by the Roncalli group posed questions involving true as opposed to hypothetical information.
Problem solving became a regular activity for these students who described themselves in their signature file as the "Roncalli Math Busters". Motivation was high, in particular when we emailed two of our problems about fishing to the C.B.C. Fishery Broadcast and both problems were read in full on live radio. The project helped students see math in context and to appreciate how math skills are useful for understanding and gleaning information about the world around us.
The project involved primarily a core group of five students who were working on a compacted math program. At the same time, however, many other students were invited to participate. Story problems received from other countries were often read out in class. When students went to log in and check their mail, they were usually accompanied by one or two students not directly involved in the project.
In terms of the computer use, students did not have any problems using email. They caught on after being shown only once or twice. After the intitial introduction, they usually went to the Resource Centre on their own to log in, check their mail and send off their answers. They logged in and out, created folders, sorted their mail, took addresses, used a distribution list and the cc (carbon copy) option. Explaining to them how to use email proved to be far easier than teaching the correct forms of letters
and envelopes for snail mail in Language Arts!
This type of project is just one of the possibilities offered to teachers through the use of the Internet. There are many other partner classrooms in countries all over the world who are studying math and who would surely like to link up with other students to explore new and exciting ways of learning.
Here is how you might go about setting up your own project