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Count for a Cause

Math skills become that much more meaningful when students use them to do good.

  • Grades: 3–5

Chores for Charity

At Gethsemane Lutheran School in Tempe, Arizona, third-grade teacher Marissa Moffitt encourages students to find additional chores to do around the house and asks parents to pay children for their extra work—the money they earn is used to go shopping for local charities. In past years, the class has bought items for a food pantry, a pet shelter, and needy children (via the Salvation Army).

“The children use their math skills as they are shopping to estimate the cost of the item, and then use their mental math to keep a running total of how much they’ve spent,” Moffitt says. “They’re also encouraged to look for bargains as they shop and to remember that store brands are a cheaper option. They do everything—earn the money, shop, check out, and even deliver the items. It’s not only a service project but also a great learning experience.”

Delicious Fractions

“Cooking is excellent at teaching the basics of math through collecting and measuring ingredients for a given batch size, and it introduces fractions in a tasty way,” says Rebecca Klemm, a former teacher and founder of Numbers Alive!, a nonprofit focused on demystifying numbers and making math fun.

When your class holds a bake sale to benefit a local charity, students gain math skills in two ways—through the baking process and then by taking responsibility for money handling during the bake sale itself. You can also have students keep track of bake sale costs, then compare them with the sales totals to calculate net profits for the event.

Cause-in-a-Can

Involve students in helping to choose a cause to support, whether it’s buying books for an impoverished school, gathering funds to support an environmental cause, or helping with medical bills for a sick student at your school. Set a fundraising goal and discuss what, specifically, will be accomplished with the funds. Have kids work together to determine how many quarters (or pennies, or dollars) each student in the class would need to raise to meet the goal. If you involve other classes or the entire school, how much would each class need to raise? Ask students to bring in mason jars or tin cans and decorate them with images about the cause. Let students collect change from the jars in each classroom and count the money on a daily or weekly basis, then post the totals where everyone can see. At the end of the project, celebrate the money raised and the difference it will make.

The Math of Sports

Klemm recommends organizing a track meet, basketball tournament, or other athletic event for students from underprivileged schools or organizations like the Boys and Girls Club. (If that’s too complicated, students could organize their own event and donate proceeds from ticket sales.)

Use the sporting event students choose to teach them the principles of math and science. In a track meet, for example, students must organize the runners into heats by age or ability and use stopwatches to track runners’ times; prior to the meet, they could spend time learning about force, motion, and resistance and how they affect performance in track and field. For basketball, students can learn about arcs and angles. In hosting the event, students will also need to create a comprehensive budget that accounts for all of the event’s costs, such as advertising, invitations, prizes, and refreshments.

Recycling by Numbers

If aluminum cans or glass bottles are returnable for a refund or recyclable for payment in your state, help your class organize a neighborhood recycling day. Students can collect returnable cans or bottles from local households or businesses, and they will learn counting, money handling, and the importance of recycling, along the way. Select a neighborhood, distribute flyers notifying residents or businesses of the project and the pickup day, then send students and chaperones around to pick up returnable cans and bottles from their designated areas. Each child should take note of the total he or she collects so the class can compile data on the amount they’ve collected overall. Students can also study the variation in the totals from different areas. Use the money earned from returned bottles or cans to purchase recycling containers for your school or neighborhood.  

Cost-Benefit Analysis

Teach your class about how to start a business, including planning for costs, expenses, and revenues, by asking each student to start his or her own “company.” Each student should determine what type of business he or she will operate—selling homemade bracelets, snacks, or artwork, for example, or providing services such as manicures or temporary tattoos.

Invite a local business owner to speak with the class about the basics of costs, revenues, and taxes. Ask students to create a simple business plan that includes startup costs, a marketing plan, and projected profits. Discuss the role that local businesses play in funding programs for schools and other nonprofit organizations, and ask each student to include in the plan a percentage of profits to be set aside for charity. Then, host a business fair in your classroom, hallway, or gym and invite other classes to shop at your students’ businesses (allow your students time to shop at one another’s booths as well). As a class, vote to choose a local cause as the recipient charity, and ask students to determine the size of the class donation based on the commitments they made in their individual business plans.

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