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The Future of Driving

8th-grade algebra meets rising gas prices and peak oil.
The Future of Driving

Though they have dropped in recent months, fuel costs had doubled nationwide in the 12 months previous to my teaching this unit. In our community, families were feeling it. My students

live at the edge of Olympia, Wash., a medium-sized capital city. Growth in our county has been among the fastest in the nation, and in spite of efforts to grow sustainably, affordable housing has leapfrogged into the county while bus service has declined. While homes in the urban core have increased tremendously in value, farm and forest land in outlying areas provide for comparatively inexpensive new housing. To make matters worse, about five years back an initiative to cut vehicle taxes resulted in the loss of about half of our rural bus service. In addition, many of our families work in occupations that depend on heavy equipment and trucks. To top it off, our traditional but waning industry is forest agriculture. Most of the large trees are gone, and efforts to preserve what's left have dramatically changed our local economy in the past 15 years. It's gotten harder to make a living wage without commuting to nearby cities. Personal economic circumstances have changed faster than the infrastructure that will support sustainability.

I wanted to broaden students' awareness of the economic tension caused by rising prices while building their mathematical knowledge of statistical analysis. First, I assigned my students the task of finding out what it cost their families the last time they filled up the tank with gas. I assured them that "nothing" was a viable answer, because some families either choose to or have to manage without a car. It turned out that every one of the 90 or so families represented by my classes had a car. The next day I had each student write his or her answer to the homework question on a sticky note, to be posted on the white board.

Casey and Nicole couldn't stop grinning as they came forward. Chris's sticky note said $7. Nicole's said $350. They were sure, in fine 8th grade form, that their answers would sidetrack the lesson and skew the data. I chose to plumb the unexpected.

"Casey, what rig is your family driving?" I asked.

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