Numbers are a large part of the Olympic games and that gives parents, teachers, and other educators opportunities to use those numbers to improve the math skills of their children and students. Below are some ideas on how you can start your own Olympics math program at home this summer.
Chart the Medal Standings
The medal standings is what most people pay attention to and the source of national pride among much of the population. Charting the medal standings can be accomplished in a number of ways from paper to objects to computers. Be creative to ensure that there is a good balance between work and play.
Let's start with paper. Pictographs are easy enough and work quite well to compare medal counts. You could create a pictograph to show the medal count for your own country by using bronze, silver and gold as the categories. How about creating a pictograph that compares the total medal count of the top ten countries? You could also make a more complicated pictograph using three different colors to show bronze, silver, and gold medals for the top ten countries. All of this could also be accomplished quite nicely on bar graphs (or triple bar graphs to show all three types of medals).
Using objects can make this activity a little more impromptu and possibly integrate some motivators. Maybe you could slice up some carrots (gold), radishes (silver), and parsnips (bronze) and model the medals with them. You could also make a chart with movable ribbons, so the medal count could be increased each day. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, there's nothing like little round candies to show medal counts.
For the more advanced, computers can make medal standing stand out nicely. Here's one I made using OpenOffice to show the medal standings in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
The advantage of using a computer is that the numbers can easily be updated every day and a new chart printed.
Learn About Decimals
There is no lack of decimals in the Olympic Games. Timing is done with computer precision and a single hundredth of a second can make the difference between gold and silver medals. Most people have access to a digital watch that will time to the nearest hundredth of a second (although the signal from the eyes to the brain to the finger to stop the timer often causes problems). It should be easy enough to time your child or student to run 100 meters, record this number and compare it to other numbers such as their favorite athlete's time. What is the difference between Usain Bolt's time of 9.69 s and your child's time?
Decimals can be modeled, written in words, read out loud, expanded, compared, ordered (although the broadcasters usually do that for you), added, subtracted, multiplied (how long would it take to run 500 m if the average speed was 10.52 s per 100 m?), divided, etc. Ask questions about decimals and if you don't get the right answer, see if you can teach your child a thing or two.
How many things can you do in a hundredth of a second, a tenth of a second, one second, ten seconds, etc.? These types of questions will help your child conceptualize the idea of time and make decimals make more sense.
Making Numbers Make Sense
Assuming numbers make sense sometimes leads us to forget that children need experiences to understand how the world works and by extension how math works. Perhaps you're watching a cycling event at the Olympics. How fast are those cyclists actually going? Jump in the car and see! How much weight are those weightlifters lifting? Don't lift it all at once, but see if you can come up with an approximation.
There are a number of interesting articles on Olympic numbers that give a different spin on things like medal counts. Media articles can be a great source of information to include in mathematical conversations, especially if they are written intelligently. Here is an example:
The key to including a little math into summer via the Olympic Games is creativity. I've only touched on a few ideas, and there are probably thousands more. Look for opportunities as they present themselves. Search for information on the Internet. For example, you could look up the medal counts for your country for the last ten years and use that information to estimate what the final medal count will be this year. Make a game of it by having everyone in the family or classroom make their own estimates and see who was closest in the end. Maybe the winner will get their own gold medal.
Now it's your turn. If you have an idea how to integrate mathematics and the Olympics, please comment below. If you're looking for something a little more formal, we stumbled across this nice collection of Olympic Related Math Activities.