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Monday, July 6, 2015

Fermi Math

Have you ever tried using Fermi problems in your math class?  I had not heard of this until a couple years ago, but now I am hooked!

Enrico Fermi was a scientist/mathematician who loved playing with numbers and was able to calculate seemingly impossible questions in his head.

Fermi math problems require
*reasonable assumptions
*number sense

A couple of classic Fermi questions are:
How many water balloons would it take to fill your classroom?
How many jelly beans fill a one liter bottle?

Fermi problems emphasize the process of solving problems over getting the exact answer.  Fermi problems will not result in an exact answer (usually), and different kids may come to their answers using different strategies.  This is a great way to get kids talking about math and justifying how they came to their answers.

How do I use this in my class?  

This is a great activity for any time of the year, but I usually use Fermi questions as a fun break between units, as a fun project for kids to work on if they finish early, or at the end of the year when you have finished the "required" curriculum but still want to keep your class engaged in math.

At the end of this school year I had each kid come up with their own Fermi math question.  A typical question usually involves "how many ____" would it take to "fill/cover a _____".  The kids are instantly interested because they get to make up their question and get to include things that are interesting to them.

Some of my sports fans asked questions about how many footballs it would take to fill a specific stadium, how many hockey pucks would it take to cover the ice on a NHL rink.  A couple examples of questions involving candy are shown in the pictures below.

Once the kids have solved their question, I have them create a poster (12" x 18 " paper) to display their question, data, and conclusions on.

The kids are amazed with the huge numbers they usually get in their answers.

Have you ever tried using Fermi style problems in your math class?

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