Educator Spotlight: Seeing the World Through Math

Kimberly Mizenko challenged her students to see math in the world around them and use it to make sense of big data, such as endangered species, which felt important to her and engaging for her class. Kimberly led her students in an investigation to use data and graphing to make predictions and understand the many local and global factors that influence species worldwide, and ultimately how they could get involved in their own community to make a difference. Now, despite being separated from her students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she is continuing to inspire her students to think big and solve challenging problems through math.

Kimberly Mizenko teaches Algebra 1 and Honors Pre-Calculus at Arvada West High School, a public school in Arvada, CO. Photo by Kimberly Mizenko

Math and species conservation are not typically intersecting subjects. Tell us about the origins of this project and why you decided to teach math through an interdisciplinary lens?

For the past four years I taught AP Statistics, which is a class that lends itself to big problems and real-world situations. Now I’m teaching ninth-grade Algebra 1, and it can be tough to motivate students. I look for things I care about that will help students feel engaged and am always on the lookout for data to make connections to their lives. For my National Geographic Educator Certification capstone, I found a huge data set on endangered species and decided this would be an interesting way to introduce the topic of linear regressions without overwhelming them with the lingo.

Walk us through this unit. How did you start and where did it lead?

We started with plotting some of the data on a linear scatterplot and the students attempted to draw lines of best fit to make predictions. But were the data—and their predictions—right?

Students calculated lines of best fit to make predictions. Photo by Kimberly Mizenko

As I introduced more data they realized the line of best fit changed from linear to quadratic (like an arch). The students wanted to know why. What was different? Why would the number of endangered species drop over time? Why were their predictions not accurate? What happened to the trend they originally saw?

They brainstormed potential answers: maybe the planet changed somehow, or there were political factors and new laws, or groups formed to preserve endangered species? It was cool to get their perspectives and let them do research to figure out what might explain the data.

As they got further into their work, they started looking locally to determine what was endangered nearby, which groups might be working to save these species, and what they could do to help. Having this work unfold as an investigation led students to want to keep digging, know more, and feel deeply engaged in finding their own answers. They ended up making presentations, which went on our school website, and posters to teach their classmates about local endangered species. It was a great way for them to see how math can be helpful in the real world, and this unit created buy-in for them to take their learning further.

Students researched possible explanations for the decrease of endangered species in the United States. Image courtesy Kimberly Mizenko

Educators: Download full lesson plan here.

You now make a point of infusing your math curriculum with real data sets and topics that feel important to young people. Has this changed how your students approach the subject? What have they been exploring since this lesson?

I try to do this style of lesson every few weeks or more. I feel like I can teach in different ways where students can learn while gaining skills, and apply their learning as soon as they have enough information in their brains to start working. I want them to leave my class feeling excited and seeing that math has real-world applications.

I have begun to notice kids coming in with questions which they know they can dive into using math. For example, a few weeks ago when we were first learning about coronavirus a student found an article about a local elementary school asking each student to wash their hands four times a day to prevent the spread. The student wanted to know: is this even possible? So we dove into it!

Students estimated the numbers of students and sinks in the school and calculated how long it would take for each student to wash their hands for 20 seconds, four times daily. They wanted to make their calculations more accurate, so we called the school to get the actual numbers for each variable. With the real data set, they calculated that it would be roughly four hours of the day, which seemed doable but would take up more than half the school day!

Getting kids to question these things and giving them confidence to solve problems helps them make sense of the world. They were able to see one of the factors behind the decision to close our school: we wouldn’t have enough time to wash our hands and stay safe during the school day.

Now with your school operating remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you plan to foster this type of learning and engagement from afar?

We luckily have online community spaces where students can chat, even if I’m not there! I’ve been asking them to post about what trends they are noticing and what questions they are thinking about. I know that right now math might not be the most important thing on their mind, so I am taking a step back to let them use this time as a learning opportunity and help them dive into whatever big questions interest them.

What advice do you have for a fellow educator who wants to teach big ideas in any subject area?

I’ve learned that the best ideas aren’t necessarily found on a website. I love to travel, and when I do, I see math in everything. Keep your eyes open and think about how to apply what you’re seeing with your students. Whether it be online or in person, I strive to see the topics I teach in the world around me and bring that to my students, and also share it out with other educators so we can collaborate and become better together.

Interested in joining Kimberly as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at NatGeoEd.org/Certification.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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