Once I became a math teacher, I started to see math problems everywhere. Just this week, my local sandwich shop’s frequent buyer program perplexed me, and I made a spreadsheet to figure out that ordering a large sandwich rather than a regular size actually is cheaper after just 6 sandwiches.

A strange business strategy

Mathematics became a fun lens with which to see the world, and I quickly learned that I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. People on the math twitter blog-o-sphere regularly post pictures or videos with the tags #anyqs or #wcydwt (which stand for “Any Questions?” and “What Can You Do With This?”). To aggregate perplexing prompts and questions, Dan Meyer created the website 101qs.com, where I visit for inspiration from time to time. Seeing these efforts motivates me, say, to screenshot my Uber and Lyft apps when they’re running comparable surge pricing with different messaging.

When it comes to having a worldview underlying a math course, I’m hard-pressed to find a one that speaks more to me than a belief that the world has problems worth solving, and that math can help. My math class is designed to foster this worldview in students. Despite the growing popularity of this worldview in today’s society (see: the Burrito Bracket or Statcast for two recent examples), most math teachers including this one will report that the response from students, at least at first, usually resembles how one responds to a sidewalk canvasser.

But after months of resistance, the converts are coming. Students loved figuring out the price of a 100-by-100 at In N Out. They were aggressively arguing over how many post-its would cover the File Cabinet. Curiosity is contagious. Here’s an email I got earlier this week, unprompted, from a student who stumbled upon something interesting and started to wonder about the math behind it:

Dear Mr. Miller,

You are always giving us tough challenge problems in class, so I have one for you! Your challenge is to give me a challenge! http://www.census.gov/popclock/ This website is a population clock for the US and the world. See if you can use these two things, and help make up a problem that can deal with either linear or exponential growth. Get back to me if you want, if not, enjoy your Monday!

Another one converted.

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