The California projects to test the use of real-world applications in teaching math are funded by one of five i3 grants on this topic nationwide.

Ten California teens sat in clusters, pencils out, running the numbers on how tough it might be to crack a safe.

Local banks can relax; the treasure these eighth-graders sought was candy sitting on their desks and the wall they had to break through to get it: algebra.

Besides, the feds already were watching. The Patterson class and another in Newman are part of a statewide, five-year research grant. Newman’s voluntary summer session ended last month; Patterson’s program wound up July 9.

In regular algebra class, the textbook would tell students the formula and ask them to calculate permutations. In Leigh Krebs’ summer school class, kids got wrapped pieces of candy and had to figure out all the ways those could be arranged, prep work for building a combination lock.

Whether three candies or three numbers, the answer is 27 combinations for the typical locker or 27 permutations on a worksheet.

The case of combinations versus permutations goes beyond learning formulas; it might offer better formulas for learning.

Will students learn more algebra using hands-on projects or from traditional textbook and lecture classes? Only time and study will tell for sure, but in Patterson students had the answer.

“It’s easier.”

“She doesn’t make it boring.”

The kid comment that caught the gold ring: “Math can be in everything. It’s everywhere.”

For more news about math instruction, see:

Study: Common Core could boost U.S. math performance

Wolfram Alpha launches free portal with tools for math instruction

eSN Special Report: The interactive math classroom

Tying algebra to real-world examples and students’ goals “makes it stick,” Krebs said.

“Math is used in so many various occupations,” she said. Too many kids stop paying attention starting in middle school because they just don’t think they’ll ever use it.

But those who build wind turbines use it. Students had to test blades, figuring the area of different geometric shapes and calculating the best angle to catch the breeze as they built their models the first week.

Practice made purposeful

Need wheelchair access? Building a model ramp takes knowing fractions, proportions, and ratios. Get the math wrong, and the toothpicks won’t line up correctly under the cardboard.

Applications like these give purpose to practice, making textbook teaching concrete. Along the way, a lot of arithmetic skills get sharpened as well.