Math – Coming Soon to a Theater Near You!

Did you know that the average American consumes 52 quarts of popcorn a year? Or that sucking on an ice cube burns 2.3 calories?

These were just a few of the fascinating facts I learned recently while sitting in the movie theater with my eight year-old niece, waiting for Disney’s Tangled to start, as “trivia” slides scrolled across the screen. Naturally, as I happened to be eating popcorn at the time, I couldn’t help wondering how many bags of movie theater popcorn constituted 52 quarts. Which led to the question, How many calories are in one bag? And then, logically, How many ice cubes would I need to suck on to counteract the bag of popcorn? (I’m not proud to admit it, but let’s just ‘fess up here . . . I could conceivably eat an entire large bag of movie theater popcorn myself.)

Once the movie started, my math ponderings did not stop. Not to ruin the story, but Tangled is the Disney-fied version of Rapunzel, so you probably know the basic premise: young girl, locked in tower, evil witch, handsome prince, happy ever after, and so on. One crucial detail: in all of her 18 years, Rapunzel has never had a haircut. She has some really long hair. She can pull the evil stepmother up the tower with just her hair, tie up the prince, wrap it around beams and swing. It’s pretty amazing hair. Maybe it was the popcorn talking, but all I could think was, How long would your hair really be if you didn’t cut it for 18 years? How much would it weigh? And would it really be strong enough to pull a person up a tower?

You may be asking, What does all this have to do with the Common Core?

Well, check out these two statements from the Standards for Mathematical Practice:

  • 1) Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.

2) Mathematically proficient students consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem.

Now, let’s go back to the popcorn problem. If you have children, especially teenage children as I do, you know that movies are pretty much a staple of existence (along with cell phones and computers). Surely, your children have eaten lots of movie popcorn, so this is a piece of trivia to which they can easily relate. Is it earth-shattering mathematics? No. However, it is real mathematics, it is fun, interesting, and can I just say, much more exciting than finding out when two trains will meet!

So I’m offering this suggestion: Let’s make this type of problem part of students’ mathematics learning.

Think of the mathematics that can come from the popcorn problem. How would we figure out the number of cups in a large bag of popcorn? That would require some geometry, determining dimensions, volume, and estimating the average number of popped popcorn kernels in one cup. Is the popcorn in a bag or a bucket? Is it large, medium, or small? How many movies would you need to see in order to eat 52 quarts of popcorn? How much would that cost you? There are so many mathematical questions and directions that students could go in, using geometry, algebra, probability, and statistics in the process. They could write up their findings, communicate their results, and work together. They could undergo real data collection at an actual movie (e.g. How many people are in the theater, and how many of them are eating popcorn?). It’s a cornucopia of mathematics. It’s applying mathematics to problems that arise in everyday life. It’s one possible answer to the question: When are we ever going to use this?

Let’s now return to the hair question. Where would students go to find information about hair length and weight? Where else but the Internet, or possibly their cell phone (my daughter’s favorite is to ask ChaCha)? Technology is the younger generation’s comfort zone, so why not use it for mathematics? This is an example where they would be using available tools appropriately (Mathematical Practice #2) to help them solve a mathematical problem. Just like the popcorn problem, the hair problem can go in many directions and incorporate a wide range of mathematics, from geometry to algebra to physics. Talk about real world problem-solving and using technology!

As a result of my recent cinematic/mathematical experiences, I’m thinking of creating a new course called “Math in the Movies.” How fun would that be? Imagine the mathematics that students could apply and learn. The mathematics wouldn’t be isolated to a single subject, but would encompass a wide range of topics: algebra, geometry, physics, biology, literature, history, art. The possibilities are endless. Students would be using technology to discover, explore, pose questions, and apply mathematics in a way that is meaningful to them—which is what we’re hoping for, right?

In this blog alone, we have seen math connections to Harry Potter, Back to the Future, and Tangled. I dare say that, in almost every movie, you can find a mathematical problem that would be of interest to students and would allow them to apply mathematics in a way that is exciting, divergent, and relevant. I challenge you to use the popcorn problem or the hair problem, or come up with your own movie/movie theater related problem, and use it in your mathematics class. See where it takes your students. You may be surprised at the reactions and responses you get from your students—and more importantly, the mathematics that occurs.

If anyone does use these or other movie/movie theater related problems, I would love to get some feedback on student solutions!

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