Constructing A Meaningful Math Project

BuildingMathProjects Photo from Toronto Public Library Special Collections

If you’re attempted to differentiate your math program through preassessment, I’m sure you’ve stumbled across students who have already demonstrated mastery of an upcoming unit.

Typically, we try to come up with something deep and meaningful for these students to work on while we instruct the class. This, however, is a tricky problem with no simple solution. As I’ve mulled it over, I’ve thought of four qualities to look for when developing a project:

  • Authentic Data
  • Interesting Conflict
  • Expert Perspective
  • Awesome Product

Finding Numbers

A project has to have some juicy, real-world data to get things going. I consider this the “seed” of the project. I listed 33 places to find data here, but here are some favorites:

Here’s an image of some US census data that I’ve been looking at:


It’s a seed of an idea. There are tons of numbers, but where’s the interesting hook? Where’s the drama to draw our students in?


I’m a Californian, and frequently travel to Texas. So when I noticed that California is the top state by population, and Texas is second, I knew I had a hook.


I graphed the census data to look for some interesting patterns:


Bingo! Texas is catching up!

Now we’ve got some conflict to build upon that might entice a student in California (or Texas!). How long will Texas need to catch up? How fast must California grow to keep Texas at bay?

Let’s look for an expert’s perspective to further develop this project.

Think Like An Expert

I like to give students a specific lens to view the conflict through. Here’s Wikipedia’s list of academic disciplines, if you’re looking for inspiration.

I settled on “Thinking Like A Tourism Geographer” after stumbling across Texas’ official tourism site as well as California’s.

Here’s how I’d set it up:

California’s board of tourism is concerned with Texas’ growing population. You’ve been hired to analyze the population data and increase the demand to move to California.

First students develop a multiline graph to show the changing populations of Texas and California. They should look for patterns and (hopefully) arrive at the same conclusion I did.

Next, they would follow the pattern, and determine about how long California had until Texas took the crown.

Note, I would not give them my multiline graph. That was purely for my own inspiration.

We could also ask students to show Texas’ population each year as a percent of California’s. These specific math requirements are up to you, and should be based on your students’ grade levels and abilities.

Then, students would determine how to highlight California’s best features to convince people to move, ensuring The Golden State’s dominance over Texas.

Digging into this idea, students could cross disciplines and use:

  • geographical points of interest
  • weather and climate information
  • locations of historical importance

Awesome Product

The icing on the cake is to give students an interesting, authentic product to communicate their findings and ideas.

Depending on their skills and interests, students might create:

  • a website
  • a commercial (either a skit or a video)
  • a brochure

In the end, be sure to give your students a chance to show their classmates what they’ve created, and display it proudly appropriately around the class.

A Flexible Pattern

Maybe you’re a Texan. This project could easily be framed around helping Texas quickly catch up to California’s population. In a smaller state? You could make it work there also. Maybe your conflict is breaking into the top ten, or catching up to the state above you.

These four steps are a nice, flexible framework for developing math projects for the needs of your advanced learners. While they’re off working independently, you are free to spend time helping the rest of your class with grade-level materials.

Finally, expect to change these projects around every year. At the least, your product options should be modified to reflect changing technology and the unique interests of your students.

Good luck, and let me know if you come up with something juicy!