Why learn math? To write business plans

Thirty-eight percent of high school seniors in Rhode Island test as “substantially below proficient” in reading or math, putting their odds of graduation at risk, writes Julia Steiny. At a summer “cram camp,” math haters got motivated by crunching numbers for business plans.

 Teachers spent the first day asking students what they don’t like about their community.  Answer:  plenty.

Okay.  So get into teams and pick one problem — like, no place for teens to hang out, bad public parks, a need for animal rescue shelters.  (Yes, many shelters exist, but so what?)  Then, build a business model with a plan that will solve the problem.  Don’t whine; take an entrepreneurial approach.  With your idea in hand, research the costs of rent, labor, utilities, equipment.  Prepare multiple spreadsheets that explain income and outflow, start-up costs and maintenance.  Develop “what if” scenarios for unanticipated expenses.  Talk to local business leaders, provided by the program, about your calculations.

Local businesses offered $1,000 to fund the winning plan. Students pitched their ideas to a panel of superintendents and business leaders.

A group of girls proposes eco-friendly electric mini-buses to chauffeur kids around. They’d wanted a cost-free service, but crunching the numbers ruled that out.

Business planning showed what they could do with math skills, says Christine Bonas, a math teacher turned guidance counselor. “The light dawned on them that this is what math is for.”

“To teach them a slope, we (math teachers) put a formula on the board, give them graph paper and show them the rise over run.  There’s always one kid who says, When am I going to use this?  The teacher says, uh, well, see that roller coaster?  Parabolas are how to keep them from crashing.  That’s no answer.  They don’t care.  But if you ask a kid to show me how your business is going to make a profit, they can show you time on the “x” axis and increase in cost on “y”, suddenly we’re looking at a negative slope.  Oh!, they say. Because we’re teaching in context.  Parabolas have to have something to do with their lives. Making a profit is something they can care about.”

Students won’t learn the skills if they don’t care, says Bonas.

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  1. Math has all sorts of uses in daily life, but teachers can only show examples of this if they themselves know the math well enough to see the use cases. If a person doesn’t know that it’s pretty easy to calculate the circumference of part of a circle, then math doesn’t pop into their heads as the solution to “how many feet of fencing will be needed to fence off this circular drive where kids are dropped off.” Instead they will see some other solution, such as laying a flexible tape measure along the ground or using a measuring wheel or some such.

  2. “Students won’t learn the skills if they don’t care.”

    Isn’t that true of everyone, at any age? But, as a corollary thought, aren’t kids too young and immature to decide what they can and can’t care about? I think of the famous example of a kid who realizes as a young adult he wants to be, and was meant to be, an engineer, but realizes all too late that he was allowed to skip all the basic Math classes in high school…

  3. “substantially below proficient”

    Instead of analyzing the missing (very basic) skills, they decide that what these kids need are more engagement and motivation. Blame the kids.

    After 20 year of (anti-skill) MathLand and Everyday Math in our (Rhode Island) schools, They still can’t look in the mirror.

    Things like Project Lead The Way will never motivate or engage away 8 years of bad math and poor skills. If they honestly examine the skills portion of their beloved “balance”, they will see that it is not getting done, and it’s a huge cop-out to blame it on a lack of real world examples.

    Steiny was wrong back when my son started first grade with MathLand 12 years ago, and she is still wrong today.