Why do I need to know this? Math teachers likely can’t even count the number of times students have asked them this question. I can specifically remember being in the middle of a unit about the relationship between rate, ratios, and percentages – working through nothing but authentic world problems – when I was asked this question by one of my seventh graders…yet again.
To solve for this, I found that using spreadsheet software in a math class not only adds interest and relevance for students, it also helps accomplish several goals for teachers (because let’s be honest, students and teachers usually have different primary goals in mind!). As educators, we know our job is to prepare students for their futures, whatever they may be. We do this by covering the grade-level standards and doing our part to equip students with 21st-century skills.
Why Spreadsheets Became Omnipotent
When the first spreadsheet software, VisiCalc, was introduced in 1979, it sold for under 100 dollars and only ran on Apple II computers for their first year.
During that period of time, 25 percent of the 2000-dollar Apple II computers were purchased solely so the purchaser could use VisiCalc—even if the person already owned another computer!
Why? Because in VisiCalc, instead of having to change all the values in a table by erasing and rewriting when the values depended on the values in another cell, they could change one variable and all the cells would instantly be recalculated and displayed with the click of a button. Talk about a productivity tool!
Spreadsheet software was a big deal right from the start and continues to be used in every single business today. There are now a variety of spreadsheet programs available, with Microsoft’s Excel being the most widely used at over 75 million users worldwide. Ask anyone in business nationally or internationally, and they will rank spreadsheet skills as one of the most valuable.
Four Reasons Spreadsheets Matter in Math Class
- Spreadsheets combine equations and variables with data representation and analysis and offer offers students an opportunity to connect variables and equations with something more concrete.
- Instead of taking hours to plot and connect lines on a graph, students can spend more time on higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing data.
- Software programs can also be used as part of an algebraic equation unit by using formulas. Students that are resistant to pencil-and-paper math tend to perk up when computers are introduced.
- Spreadsheet programs give immediate feedback to let students know whether they are correct or not, which allows them to adjust accordingly.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that students shouldn’t know how to create a graph by hand. (They should.) When students create graphs by hand, they learn why graphs have regular intervals, conceptualize what the lines represent (as opposed to the spaces in-between), and experience the slope of a line as rise and run.
But once students have shown mastery of these foundational principles, moving on to spreadsheet software accomplishes several goals as a teacher with multiple standards to address, and at the same time, transforms it into a 21st-century digital skill.
Example 1: Cost Comparisons
Let’s say students are applying what they’ve learned about formulas to something like renting an event space for a private workshop.
A typical problem might be something like: The rental rate for Space A is 45 dollars per hour, but if the workshop time goes over, they start charging 45 dollars for every half hour. The rental rate for Space B is 60 dollars per hour, and they charge 35 dollars for every half hour the time runs over. You know that sometimes your workshops do run long. Compare the rates for Space A to Space B to help you know which space to choose.
In this case, one way for the students to solve the problem is to create equations that they then graph to find the cross-over point, if any.
If students are working with this problem within a spreadsheet program, they can now easily compare different options: What if the workshop was one hour long but went a half hour over? Or two hours long but it went an hour over?
If students had to graph all of those options by hand, it takes time that could be spent on the higher order thinking and problem-solving skills that are critical to careers and to life generally.
Example 2: Surveys & Data Visualization
Here is another idea for a middle school math classroom to help make data analysis and representation more comprehensible for students:
Instead of handing students a table of data, have them start by collecting it themselves through conducting surveys. I did a project with my 8th grade students where they worked in groups to generate questions about quality of life that could be answered quantitatively (with numbers) in a survey.
Each student contributed one question, and their homework was to ask the compiled list of the groups’ questions.
A couple days later, after the students had conducted their surveys, we headed to the computer lab, where individuals from each group compiled their findings by entering the survey data into a shared spreadsheet.
Next, they made their own copy of the sheet, which they were then able to use to generate graphs and write corresponding conclusions. I gave them sentence starters such as “When I compared _____ to _______, I found that…” or “My graph shows that…”.
Students found it interesting because it was data that they had collected, and they enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the project. We both appreciated saving time by using a technology tool to generate graphs.
Introducing Younger Students to Spreadsheets
In order for a middle school teacher to be able to successfully do projects like this with students, the groundwork needs to be laid prior.
Starting in second grade, students can be introduced to vocabulary such as cell, column, and row and learn basic spreadsheet organizational skills. They can even start using features that alphabetize or find the sum of data.
Imagine how confident a student would be in high school in their math, science, and social studies classes – anywhere they may be collecting and analyzing data – if they were as familiar with software productivity tools as they were with the latest social media app!
Classroom teachers may not feel comfortable with spreadsheets, which could hold them back from using these programs with students. That’s where a growth mindset comes in handy! I remember at the age of 30, when I was introduced to a track pad on a laptop, how clumsy I felt. Now it feels completely natural. I’m still no expert on spreadsheets, but I learned enough to use them with my students, and I know others can too.
By integrating technology in math class, teachers can feel confident that they are laying the foundations for students to succeed wherever their future may take them.
Bonus: Download these free spreadsheet lesson plans!