Engaging students: Standard Deviation

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Jillian Greene. Her topic, from statistics: standard deviations.

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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?


An activity that I’ve seen presented to introduce the idea of standard deviation requires students to explore the information given to them before actually being taught the math behind standard deviation. As the students settle into their seats, prompt them to work with their shoulder partner and help to measure the width of their left thumbnail (or length of their pointer finger, width of their hand, etc.) and write it on a sticky note. Once the data is collected, the students will calculate the mean of all of the measurements. The mean is then written on the board in the center, and the students are asked to go and stack their post-it notes in either the center if they are perfectly the mean, or on the right or left if it’s bigger or smaller, respectively. Have them find the mean of the distances of each measurement from the mean. When they discover this should be zero, have them discuss with each other and then in the big group what that means. If time provides, it might even be fun to ask deeper understanding questions like what would happen if everyone last half of their thumbnail, or what if just Student A’s thumbnail tripled in size. This will provide a meaningful sequitur into the sometimes confusing world of standard deviation and distances from the mean.


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How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?


This is a full episode of Everybody Loves Raymond but the clip in reference starts at about 8:45 and lasts a minute or so.


This clip shows a scenario where the couple, Ray and Deborah, is comparing their scores on an IQ test (a very common use for standard deviation). Deborah comments on how her score is very close to Ray’s, being only 15 points higher. The brother that proctored the exam corrected her by saying that 15 points is a standard deviation higher and puts her in a “whole new class” of genius. Have students discuss and explain what it means for Deborah to be one standard deviation higher. Use the information given in the episode (100 is average, 115 is one standard deviation higher) to construct the bell curve for IQ scores. Then use the bell curve to introduce percentiles. Since Ray is the average, center-of-the-bell score, then he is in the 50th percentile. The students can then attempt to discover on their own (or with a group) what percentile Deborah’s score puts her in.



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How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?


Standard deviation is a topic that pervades almost all sciences. In biology classes, students are asked to student the weather and climate of various habitats. In differentiating between the two, one must look at the overall picture. If the student is presented with the information that place A and place B both have average temperatures of 60 degrees, this information might not be good to take as face value. Place A might have a range from 40 to 80 degrees throughout the year while place B might range from 0 to 100 and then have one or two extremely hot outliers that even the average out to 60. Looking at not only the skew of the bell curve, but also what the standard deviation is for each place, might save a student from forgetting to bring a fan to hypothetical place B, or writing that that the climate of that place is cool year round.  In addition to biology, standard deviation is a very necessary operation in psychology, which is a very statistics-based science. This can easily be seen in representing IQ scores how we found earlier!




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