Engage Students in Mathematics Through Real-World Challenge-Based Learning

April 29, 2021
By: Josh Neubert


Josh Neubert, CEO, Institute of Competition Sciences

Why does this matter to me? This is the common question thousands of students (and let’s be honest, adults too) ask themselves every day when it comes to mathematics. Why do I need to learn this? Math is so boring!

Unfortunately, these complaints are heard far too often. Unlike some of the more tangible subjects, mathematics can be difficult for students to see the real-world benefit to their lives – especially when you get to the more theoretical subjects. Teaching experts have been working on this problem for decades and in recent years we have learned a lot about how to bring “math to life” for students of all ages.

For over a decade, the Institute of Competition Sciences (ICS) has been studying the pedagogy of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, particularly related to the use of “Challenge-Based Learning.” Through research and program operations resulting in more than $11,000,000 of student awards and scholarships being awarded with global partners such as Microsoft, Google, NASA, and The Actuarial Foundation, we have learned a lot about how students engage in various subjects. For mathematics, we can boil our own learning down to three critical components: engaging, motivating, and inspiring. So, how should we implement these components as instructors and teachers to assure effective student math learning?

1. Make it Real

In recent years many great new ideas have come to light from sound pedagogical research. Many of these ideas center around one common, core topic: make it real. In traditional education, the stereotypical mathematics problem asks students to track two trains leaving a station at the same time, traveling at different speeds and determine which one will arrive at the next station first. There are hordes of test-prep questions like this for all subjects. Esoteric, abstract, and not at all connected to something that the students will come across in their own lives. Creating topics that have connections to real-world problems or needs helps students see the value the mathematics provides to companies, organizations, governments, and the public.

2. Encourage Agency

Agency is an often-overlooked aspect of learning. Traditional classrooms are extremely prescriptive to students. Schools tell them what they should be learning, when, and worst of all, they are told how they are supposed to learn it. Agency, or the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices, is a critical aspect of learning. Helping students want to learn encourages them to internalize the content. How do you do this? You give students choices. You let them design their own projects. You encourage them to make the decisions about the real-world scenarios you present them.

3. Create Challenges

Our third aspect of engaging, inspiring, and motivating students to learn mathematics is simple, challenge them. This is not unique to mathematics. Students of all ages demonstrate increased performance when they are challenged to do their best. We see this in sports all the time to great effect, yet the traditional education system has remained reticent to embrace the full power of academic challenges. Creating challenges where students must master the topic in order to perform their best encourages students to examine the content on deeper levels than they ever would through regular classroom activities.

As the Founder and CEO of the Institute of Competition Sciences I have had the pleasure of working with leading companies, governments, and organizations around the world to design and manage educational competitions in a broad array of topics. In 2015, we joined forces with The Actuarial Foundation to put our expertise to work for statistics, probability, data-analysis, and actuarial science. An amazing new challenge was born from this partnership.

The Modeling the Future Challenge (MTFC) was the result of the joint efforts of ICS and The Actuarial Foundation to help students engage with mathematics on a new level. Using the techniques mentioned above, the MTFC encourages students to hone their mathematical skills to solve real-world risk analysis problems that organizations face every day.

And we know teachers find this Challenge invaluable. We just concluded this year’s Challenge with our annual Modeling the Future Symposium and were extremely happy about the record number of participating teams this year: 193 teams comprised of 618 students from 102 schools across 25 states nationwide. The Challenge introduces students to the Actuarial Process. Much like the scientific method, this process provides students a system they can utilize anytime they need to analyze risk. From start to finish, the Actuarial Process and the Modeling the Future Challenge offer students the opportunity to think for themselves and exercise their critical-thinking skills in ways they do not see in the typical mathematics classroom. Closing its 5th year, the MTFC engages thousands of students annually with a mathematics pedagogy that motivates, engages, and inspires learning like never before.

Students, educators, and volunteer actuaries alike are encouraged to join us in this innovative experience and see how education can be fun, motivating, and inspiring, even for the most “boring” of subjects – mathematics. when we use best-practices in challenge-based learning.

Learn more about the Modeling the Future Challenge.

Categories: Educators, Volunteering