Teacher Is Making Math Matter

By Mark Newman
Ottumwa Courier, Iowa

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the Iowa teacher who is helping students see real world applications for mathematics. She’s using entrepreneurship as the key to creative learning.


As a student, Nancy Van Wyk wondered how algebra would ever apply to her life.

“I wish I’d known where I’d use it,” she said Wednesday.

She discovered it really does apply to life, and now that she’s the teacher, she’s sharing that with her students.

Some of her classes at Evans Middle School are using student-created businesses to reach the knowledge “standards” in honors-level math class.

By being in business, math shows up on kids’ radars as relevant.

Van Wyk, who has taught in the district for four years, works with each group to develop a new business.

On the White Board at the front of the class (in a sense, it’s a chalkboard-sized computer monitor — with a touch screen) the first group activated its presentation.

The kids said since Ottumwa doesn’t have one, they thought they’d follow their interests and create a theatrical shop.

Everything would be in one location, they explained: costumes, props, even scripts for the play.

Though some plays would be available from play publishers, the entrepreneurs will have a play of their own available for purchase.

Van Wyk can see their progress: Though they’re not required to rent a storefront, they’ve had to do something related to the concept, and have written the first act of a play about music students.

The class got to ask questions, one of which was, “How much will plays cost?”

The cost of rights to perform a play vary; how popular is the play, how big is the theater, is the group professional, school or amateur.

That’s something they’ll go into next week, Van Wyk told students.

The other group to present on Wednesday would be opening a specialty restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. The main ingredient? Ice cream.

So a breakfast sandwich idea used waffles as the bread, with ice cream inside.

Questions? Are the waffles going to be hot or cold?

“Hot,” said one entrepreneur, while another presenter simultaneously said, “Cold.”

“If it’s hot, it’ll melt the ice cream,” said a student.

Final call: Waffle cookies at room temperature.

There’s still work to do perfecting their concept. But they’re enjoying it, and doing math for a reason that’s relevant to their businesses. The ice cream shop group was already in the kitchen; Van Wyk said the kids froze their own homemade ice cream.

One more way to connect math with the real world? Shopping.

“For those of you who participate in Black Friday,” said Van Wyk to the class, “you [may appreciate] next week when we talk about taxes, markups and discounts.”

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