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Finding the Mathematical Gold in the Olympics

The Olympics in Tokyo this summer involved a veritable goldmine of mathematics. Athletes competed to find out how fast they could cycle, swim, run, row, sail. How close they could get to a target. How far they could throw, swim, run. How heavy they could lift. How high they (or their horse) could jump. Athletes from all over the world competed in events that required the use of mathematics to measure their success.


This summer, first through ninth graders in the Alpine school district near San Diego, California capped off their math camp week by engaging in their own Alpine Summer Olympics. Students chose different events to see if they could beat their own records, and to think about where the mathematics is in each activity. It was an exciting way to finish off a successful week of learning mathematics and it could be just the thing to start off your school year. No matter how your students feel about the Olympics, they will get a kick out of finding the math in their favorite events.



Why a “Mathematics Olympics”?

Engaging students in Olympic type events helps them see how we use mathematics in the world around us. The events serve to integrate important subject areas into mathematics such as physical education and science. A “Mathematics Olympics” gives students a reason to use measurement and study data. And most importantly, the events are motivating, engaging, and bring out the joy in doing mathematics.



The Events

Alpine teachers and Math Transformations consultants began the final day of their summer math camp by showing students videos featuring various athletes talking about Math at Work in the Olympics. Teachers then modeled and introduced the different events students could choose and what they had to do:


  1. Choose an event.

  2. Practice it.

  3. Use math to measure how you did (see Olympic Event Recording Sheet)

  4. Try to break your record.


After finishing their events, students shared about “where’s the math” in each of their activities.


Following are some of the events from the Alpine Summer Olympics.


How many times can you write your name in one minute?


This is a good event to begin the Olympics with and serves as a model that’s accessible to everyone. Distribute a pencil and a piece of copier paper to each student. Tell them they’ll be writing their name (or draw stars) as many times as they can in one minute as you keep time. Do the event one more time to see if students can break their record.


Where’s the Math?

When determining the number of times students write their name, do students make use of grouping methods and count by twos, fives, or tens? Or do they count by ones?



How far can you frog jump in 2 jumps?

Set up a starting line and have students take turns finding out how far they can jump in 2 jumps. They then measure the distance using a meter stick; afterwards students try jumping again to beat their record.


Where’s the Math?

Students gain experience using a meter stick to measure the distance they jumped.



How tall of a cup tower can you build? How many cups tall is it? How tall of a cup tower can you build in 1 minute?



Kids love building cup towers! Make sure you have a lot of plastic cups so that students can build their cup towers. They can build individually or work together in a group. They experiment to see how many cups they can build in a minute or just try to build the highest tower.

Note: Rather than cups, students can also use Unifix cubes with which to build.


Where’s the Math?

Counting the cups, estimating and then measuring how tall their tower is using standard or non-standard units, using a timer to measure one minute.



How big of a bubble can you make on your desk?


Using a plastic cup, a solution of water and dish soap, and a straw, students try to make the biggest bubble they can on their tabletop. After each bubble pops, it leaves residue on the desk in the shape of a circle. See directions for the Bubble Lesson here: Lesson.


Where’s the Math?

After they make a bubble on their tabletop, students must measure the diameter of the circle using cubes or a ruler. Once everyone has measured quite a few bubbles, teachers have students post the measurements on a class line plot and discuss the data.



How big can you make a giant bubble? How high can your giant bubble go?


Mix water, dish soap, and glycerin in a large tub. Make a “Bubble Wand” by threading string through two straws, and then closing the loop by tying a knot in the string (see photo below). Students experiment to see how big of a bubble they can make, and how high their bubbles can float in the air.


Where’s the Math?

There’s lots of experimenting involved in trying to make giant bubbles! But the math comes into play when students try to determine how high their bubbles float or how big their bubbles are. They can estimate using real world referents, reporting things like, “The bubble floated higher than the school building!” or, “The bubble is bigger than I am!” Students can also estimate using standard units such as inches, feet, yards, or meters.



How high can your Alka Seltzer Rocket fly?


Students make an Alka Seltzer Rocket using a film canister, water, and Alka Seltzer. They experiment making different recipes (different amounts of water and Alka Seltzer) to see which makes the film canister lid shoot the farthest/highest. See directions for Alka Seltzer Rockets.


Where’s the Math?

Aside from all the experimenting students do, they use math when they measure the amounts of water and Alka Seltzer. They use fractions when creating their recipes: for example, 1/2 tablet and 2/3 full of water. Students can also explore ratios by writing their recipes as a ratio: ___ parts water: ___ parts Alka Seltzer. They also need to figure out some way to measure how far or high their rocket goes!



How many bean bags can you get into the bucket in 1 minute?


All you need are bean bags, a bucket, and a timer! Have students stand a distance away and take turns timing each other to see how many bean bags they can get into a bucket in 1 minute. Have them repeat and try and break their record.


Where’s the Math?

Counting, measuring a minute using a timer or stopwatch, predicting how many bean bags they can get into the bucket and then figuring the difference between their prediction and the actual result.




Start Your Year with a Mathematics Olympics

The events described above are just a few examples of the kinds of things you can do with your students in a Mathematics Olympics. It’s a good way to help students see the joy in math and an exciting and motivating way to start the school year!



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