Engaging students: Powers and exponents

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 Austin Stone. His topic, from Pre-Algebra: powers and exponents.

What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

“The number of people who are infected with COVID-19 can double each day. If it does double every day, and one person was infected on day 0, how many people would be infected after 20 days?” This problem can be a current real-life word problem that all students can relate to given the times we are in. This problem would be a good introductory for students to see how quickly numbers can get when using exponents. This would be an engaging introductory to exponents and will get the students interested because they can easily see that this can be used in current problems facing the world. This problem could also work later in Algebra if you ask how many days it would take to infect “blank” amount of people. This makes the question more of a challenge because they would have to solve for “x” (days) which is the exponent.

How has this topic appeared in the news?

This topic has been the news so far in 2020 if we are being honest. COVID-19 is a virus that has an exponential infection rate, just like any virus. When talking about COVID-19, news reporters and doctors usually use graphs to depict the infection rate. These graphs start off small but then grow exponentially until it slows down due to either people being more aware of their hygiene habits and/or the human immune system getting more familiar with the virus. Knowing how exponents work helps people better understand the seriousness of viruses such as COVID-19 and the everlasting impact it can have on the world. Doctors study what are the best ways to slow down the exponential growth so that a limited number of people contract and potentially die from the virus. To do this, they predict the exponential growth keeping in mind the regulations that may be enforced. Whatever regulation(s) slow down the virus the most are the ones that they try to enforce.

How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

An easy way to introduce students who have never seen exponents or exponential growth before is to use a graphing calculator. By plugging in an exponential function into the calculator and viewing the graph and zooming out, students can easily see how quickly numbers start to get massively large. A teacher can set this up by giving the students a problem to think about such as, “how many people would be infected with the virus after “blank” amount of day?” Students then could guess what they believe it would be. After revealing the graph and the actual number, students will probably be surprised at how big the number is in just a short amount of time. After that, the teacher could show a video on YouTube about exponential growth and/or infection rates of viruses and how quickly a small virus can turn into a pandemic. This also has very current real-world applications.

One thought on “Engaging students: Powers and exponents”

1. Well-said. Using real-life examples as applications make mathematics more interesting to the students, especially those we ask “why am I learning it ?”

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