Perhaps you've heard about the Gwinnett County elementary school teachers who thought it might be fun to mix mathematics and social studies by constructing word problems related to -- wait for it -- slavery. (Sample question: "If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?")
In the annals of really bad ideas, this one probably deserves a chapter all its own. But that doesn't mean the concept of using math to teach other subjects is fundamentally flawed. Just think how much students might learn about modern-day economics, for example, from a question like this:
"The current national debt is $15,242,893,348,886.76. If the projected population of the United States in 2060 is 420 million, and the national debt continues to increase by 8.5 percent per year, as it has since 1938, how much money will each of your grandchildren owe?"
(OK, so that problem is probably too complex for third-graders, not to mention U.S. Senators.)
Here's another question that might help students better understand the way local governments work: "If Developer X buys a piece of property for $1.6 million, then sells it to the county four days later for $2.4 million, how many times have he and Commissioner Y had lunch together down at the Chamber of Commerce?"
How about a question that exploits young boys' natural interest in sports: "If an average of 2.5 University of Georgia football players are arrested each month during the off-season, and the off-season lasts six months, how many players will be suspended on opening day? Round up to the nearest top-10 recruiting class."
Here's a science question that may also help to increase students' eco-sensitivity: "The worldwide population of polar bears is estimated at approximately 25,000, up from around 10,000 in 1950. If 72 polar bears die each day due to global warming, how long before the Coca-Cola Company is forced to find a new mascot?"
A question for budding little businesspeople: "Company A contributed $27,000 to the mayor's election campaign and was awarded a lucrative airport concession contract. Company B contributed $17,000 to the mayor's election campaign and was awarded a lucrative airport concession contract. How much must Company C contribute to the mayor's election campaign in order to be considered for any future airport concession contracts?"
And one for the college-bound, yet socially conscious: "If Marsha takes out $100,000 in student loans to get a degree in gender studies, and then finds a job as a barista making $9.50 an hour, how many angry letters to the editor will she write decrying the injustice of our capitalistic society?"
And, finally, a short essay question: "According to a recent report issued by the College Board, the average SAT score of education majors is 960. For future brain surgeons, the average score is more than 1100. How might this disparity have affected the decision to include slavery related questions on a third-grade math test?"
Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. Email him at email@example.com.