Engaging students: Exponential Growth and Decay

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 Madison duPont. Her topic, from Precalculus: exponential growth and decay.

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

Through an EDSE 4000 assignment (for which we were to find a Higher Level Task,) I found a fantastic activity that demonstrates exponential growth and decay in an exploratory, hands-on manner. The link to the website with the lesson plan as well as the activity can be found below. This activity is beneficial to the students for several reasons. The first is that they use a variety of materials and methods: hands-on manipulatives (M&Ms), technology (graphing calculators), and written work. This provides students with varied learning styles a chance to participate in and understand the concept of exponential growth and decay. Consequently, the students are able to experience how quickly exponential growth and decay occurs as the number of M&Ms they are having to count, collect, shake, and dump on their desk grows or shrinks rapidly. They then are able to see how this real-life phenomenon can be measured mathematically through an equation and represented mathematically in a graph. Another reason why I enjoyed this activity was because the worksheet had them make conjectures, analyze data, and find relationships between factual and actual information. This activity was conducted in my EDSE 4000 class and proved to even interest colleagues because the likelihood of getting an exponential relationship from probability of M&Ms facing a certain way seemed unlikely and intriguing. There were a few tips I took away from conducting the activity in my class that may be helpful to remember when conducting this activity again. First, be sure to instruct students not to eat any of the M&Ms until after they complete both the growth and decay portion. Second, inform students of how to count morphed or faded M&Ms prior to the activity. Third, the students will need to be slightly informed about exponential functions in order to make conjectures or determine theoretical functions as required in the worksheet. Fourth, going over how to use the calculator as directed prior to or during the activity may help the activity run more smoothly. Lastly, skittles do not work as well with this activity because they make a significantly sticky mess as they melt in hands. Overall, the hands-on exploration and intellectual reasoning utilized in this activity makes exponential growth and decay interesting, entertaining, and relatable.

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How has this topic appeared in the news?

Exponential growth and decay is largely recognized in the news media regarding the Exponential Growth in Technology. The links below provide intriguing information about the study of how quickly and steadily technology is growing. Morris’ Law is referenced often to provide some explanation for the startlingly rapid growth of technology and decay of previous forms of technology. Also, provided on these sites are videos of Ray Kurzweil discussing his theories of technology being able to duplicate patterns and behaviors of the human brain even more powerfully than that of a human in the near future due to the exponential pattern of technology’s growth. This would likely be interesting to students as technology is a growing part of their lives, lives that may become even more dependent on technology in this coming generation’s lifetime. All of this plausible reality being convincingly calculated from a simple exponential pattern that can be introduced in a high school classroom is pretty amazing, and possibly even powerful, to the minds of future students that can apply this knowledge to the technology phenomenon (or maybe even in other topics of our society) in their future careers. Another video found on the thatsreallypossible.com site has Dr. Albert Bartlett discussing the relevance and impact of “simple” exponential relationships applied to our global community’s resources and economy that are not just hypothetical, but that have happened, and are likely to happen. Using these sites you not only show students the power and importance of exponential growth and decay, you also inform them as global citizens and expose them to realistic problems and ideas that will need to be solved or explored in their lifetime or near future, which is arguably the essence of teaching.



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How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic? Note: It’s not enough to say “such-and-such is a great website”; you need to explain in some detail why it’s a great website.

The graphing applet found at mathwarehouse.com (referenced below) is extremely useful in extending student knowledge of the principles of exponential growth and decay. Using this for an activity can help students compare and contrast changing elements of the function without working separate (seemingly unrelated) examples on their own or in groups. Not only is the applet beneficial because you can graph several factors at a time, but you also have clear, graphical representation of the algebraic manipulations along side the algebra. This can be useful for students that learn visually or are ELLs. Activities can be easily carried out by projecting the applet onto a SMART board for full-class evaluation and discussion, having students perform exercises in groups and recording findings for notes, or even just helping students understand differences in homework problems, and hard to understand textbooks notation that are not making sense to students with verbal or written explanations. This being a free website students can access at home on their computer, smart phone, tablet, etc. can be resourceful to students that do not have a graphing calculator and can also be helpful to students as they work through problems independently and try to understand the behaviors of exponential growth and decay outside of the classroom. Because of the applet’s accessibility, aesthetic set up, and ease in manipulation, I recommend this as a useful technology resource both for the teacher and the student as they explore exponential growth and decay.


Pleather, D. (n.d.). Precalculus Lesson Plans and Work Sheets. Retrieved November 17, 2016, from http://www.pleacher.com/mp/mlessons/algebra/mm.html.

Document: M&M_GrowthDecayActivity






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