Blogs, Calculus, Fun and Games

Calculus fun

When teaching a class, there are many times I find that there is material that I just have to cover.  It may be interesting, important or just on the required curriculum, but there seems to be no way to actually get through it while keeping the students interest.  In particular I’ve had this issue over the first week of calculus. During this week, I feel it is important to review.  The review time gives everyone time to get settled in, accustomed to my teaching style and comfortable with the notation I plan on using.  However, this review either bores the students that are already comfortable with the topics, or overwhelms the students that don’t remember everything they’ve seen.   Therefore, by the end of the week, everyone is ready to move on.

I am just excited to move onto something new as my students are; however, I felt like we need to reset the feeling in the classroom and do something different.  I’m sure that similar situations happen throughout all fields of study, since I had to do similar things when teaching guitar lessons.  In that case scales, chords, keys and theory were important, but after a lesson on these I’d have to go back to something that the student really enjoyed.  Therefore, I wanted to share what I did today, as it has seemed to work.

In math, finding something fun seems to be easy and difficult at the same time.  In particular, to grab my students attention I can focus a project on things that matter to them and I can find something math orientated to fit the subject.  However, it is much more difficult to use props and toys in a math class, as it is difficult to integrate into a lesson instead of just treating them like toys.  I try to be able to do both, but today I wasn’t able to incorporate any props.

So, what is a subject that college students love?  Honestly I haven’t found a topic yet that brings out more excitement than pizza.  Food in general can bring an emotional response out of anyone, and perhaps other foods would work better for different age groups, but I still get the most success talking about pizza.  As you may have known from Pizza Division, I also enjoy pizza, so it makes the topic fun for me to.  Now pizza is always good, but I also find that my calculus students love to talk about money.  While I do get more of a reaction out of food than money, most students perk up at the mention of either in class, so I wanted incorporated both into their project.  How can I do this, well let’s have them discuss opening a pizzeria!

If we open a pizzeria what would we like to know ahead of time?  This is what I was able to focus my classes’ attention on.  We then discussed price and demand and how those are related, what revenue, cost, profit and what is the relationship between these.  While, yes I could get carried away and make this quite complicated, I presented these questions in such a way that made the math relatively easy and we were able to work only with linear and quadratic functions.  This allowed them to spend most of the time finding the relation between topics, setting up models and then interpreting the results they got.

I find this particularly helpful as these are often difficult things for students to do.  In this relaxed atmosphere where they get to work with each other and converse casually about business and pizza, they seem to do much better than in a test like situation.  Throughout the class, the students relaxed and even smiled as they went through the work.  By the end of class, it seemed that the mood had been uplifted and the students might be able to get to the new task of learning calculus.

I had mentioned that props or outside devices also help to get students excited, but sadly I had none of those for them today.  I would have liked to have brought them on a field to a pizzeria, or even just brought in pizza to help them visualize how changes in price would affect what they wanted.  Or, at least, I know students would always remember the pizza party they had in calculus class.  While I would love to do this, it is quite expensive to buy pizza for a class of 40.  Having two calculus classes makes this prospect even less likely.  As such, I have thought about reworking my project to talk about candy instead.  It’s a little less exciting, but buying a large bag of candy is easier than buying 10 pizzas between the two classes.  If I try this in the future, I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have included the instructions for the lab that I’ve written up for instructors, as well as the instructions to give the students, and a key in case you are interested in learning the details of or trying to incorporate this project.  While I know this project won’t work for your biology or physics class, I hope seeing the thought process will inspire you to come up with something that will excite your students.  If you try this project, or have your own that you use in any class that always seems to make your students happy, please let me know in the comments.

Calculus Labs

You can also find this and some other projects that my wife and I have made and posted in the shop.


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