Engaging students: Ratios and rates of change

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 again comes from my former student Cameron Story. His topic, from Algebra: ratios and rates of change.

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What interesting word problems using this topic can your students do now?

Since the most relatable example of a ratio is speed (meters per second, miles per hour, etc.), it’s easy to see how a teacher can make an interesting or engaging word problem out of this. First, however, let us take a look at an infamous word problem involving ratios/rates of change that is not inherently interesting on its own.

“Train A, traveling 70 miles per hour (mph), leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When do the two trains meet? How far from each city do they meet?” (“The Two Trains.” Mathforum.org, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.two.trains.html.)


This is a distance-over-time that most students or past students are familiar with, but why is this problem still being used? There are a few issues I have with this example. Firstly, I cannot think of very many students who could honestly get excited about trains, especially now in the modern era of vehicular travel. I am willing to bet that most of your high school math students have never even been on a train; and if they have, it was most likely an underwhelming experience. This example also lacks creativity. Giving the trains actual names or having them traveling between real world places would have been a step in the right direction.

So how can we change this example to become engaging to students? Firstly, let’s replace the trains with modern cars, and crank up the speed. Every student is familiar with cars, and fast-moving cars (in my opinion) is much more exciting. One could easily imagine using modern rockets as the vehicle as well, and replacing the towns with interplanetary destinations. Next, instead of naming the cars Car A and Car B, we can use actual modern electric cars such as the Model 3 from Tesla Motors. Take a look of the following word problem I came up with instead (you may notice the stakes of the situation described is objectively more engaging then a problem about train travel):

“Tesla is hoping to feature one of its new cars in a commercial, in which a car attempts to race underneath a falling refrigerator in dramatic fashion. In the commercial, the car must travel at top speed, traveling over 25 meters of track from start to finish. As soon as the car passes the starting line, the fridge is dropped from 10 meters up in the air above the finish line, at a rate of 20 meters per second. The top speeds (in meters per second) of the Tesla Model 3 and the Tesla Roadster are shown below. Which car should Tesla pick to safely beat the falling fridge?”

The reason a creative approach works better is that it increases the student engagement; students do not want to do word problems, so it is our job as teachers to make them interesting.




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

Creating an activity around rates of change allows for a lot of creativity. For example, one could take a physical approach, in which students record how fast they can run (only requires a stop watch and a set distance) and using that to plot their data on a distance vs. time graph.

It is important to remember that ratios can represent far more than just speed. Some relatable examples include rate of hair growth, number of hours studied per week, or even how many gallons of water drank in a day. For my Tesla commercial word problem, I used a website (desmos.com) to flesh out this one problem into an engaging classroom activity. Having your classroom activities on interactive platforms that evoke teamwork and cooperation in your students is key to student engagement.




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How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

Desmos Classroom Activities (at teacher.desmos.com) is an incredibly useful tool that teachers can use to quickly create any activity for their students. These activities can even be done on smart phones, which removes some of the hassle of getting computers in the classroom. When creating an activity, teachers also have access to a wide range of tools including (but not limited to) animation, student inputs, information slides (for presentation), and even interactive functions that allow students to modify given equations.

The main benefit of using Desmos for classroom activities is that the teacher has full and complete access to viewing student progress. Instead of walking around the room trying to hunt down students who need help, the teacher can view which students are stuck on which problems. The teacher can then approach the issue fully prepared, and know exactly which students are having problems before their hands even hit the air.

I created a Desmos activity available for use in a lesson about ratios or rates of change (link: https://teacher.desmos.com/activitybuilder/custom/5b887ad92c2ff330af6b87c0) which uses the same Tesla commercial word problem I gave before. Using this website, I was able to build this world problem into a somewhat-realistic and animated simulation, asking critical questions in order to build upon the underlying mathematical concepts. Feel free to adapt my lesson (Desmos has a copy/edit feature for activities) for any vehicle, scenario, or speed.



“Desmos Classroom Activities.” Desmos Classroom Activities, 2010, teacher.desmos.com/.


Story, Cameron. “Ratios and Rates of Change Activity.” Desmos Classroom Activities, 30 Aug. 2018, teacher.desmos.com/activitybuilder/custom/5b887ad92c2ff330af6b87c0.


“The Two Trains.” Mathforum.org, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.two.trains.html.





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