I’ve long kept this lovely question from Stupid Calculations in my back pocket:
Exactly how many gallons of water are in [an Olympic-sized pool] and what profoundly useless figures could be extrapolated and humanized from this gargantua? And so I set out to find and crunch the numbers least likely to be useful, but most likely to entertain.
The author, Josh Orter, goes on to wonder: How long would it take to drink an Olympic-sized pool?
I was surprised to realize that, although I had been showing this prompt in presentations since 2013, I had never actually written a project around it.
So, I took that inspiration and created a series of tasks exploring the volume of a very big pool.
- I wondered, “How many 2-liter bottles could I fill with Olympic water?” Sort of like a weird souvenir!
- Perhaps my favorite thought was: “How much pasta could I cook using the water in an Olympic-sized pool?”
- And finally, I considered filling the pool with jet fuel and then wondered how many times I could fill up a jet using my pool!
Now, perhaps you had the natural reaction of murmuring, “But… that’s ridiculous.” Yes, it is, and, yes, that’s kinda the point! Ridiculous questions are interesting!
And, what a great testimonial for why math is awesome: you can actually calculate the answers to these hare-brained questions! I now know how much pasta I could cook using an Olympic-sized pool! Thanks math!
Remember, “real world” problems are often mundane. Aim for interesting!
Keep It Fuzzy
Now, rookie Ian would have turned these questions into giant, multi-page instructions with 70 clear steps so kids would always know exactly what to do next.
I aimed for clarity. I wanted to reduce confusion. But, in doing so, I also took away any chance for my kids to think.
I turned these beautiful questions into glorified worksheets with step-by-step directions!
Now I’ve learned to keep it fuzzy. I want the next step to be slightly out of focus. I purposefully leave out essential information. Students have to, you know, actually think.
This means giving far fewer instructions. It means I don’t provide a box with all of the necessary conversions spelled out. It means kids learn to ask for the information they need. In fact, that’s my first prompt! (I’m certain that I cribbed this from Dan Meyer at some point).
What do you need to know?
Ok, how can you find that?
I guarantee this will freak some of your highest-achieving kids out. They may have made straight As for five years without being asked to think!
PS: I built each of these into Byrdseed.TV tasks
PPS: Check out what these kids came up with.
Ever wonder how much tea or Jello could fit into an olympic size pool? Here is a reference guide, curated by the 5th grade math students!
— Mrs. Green AIG (@MrsGreenAIG) April 19, 2022