13 March 2009 10:01 AM

Pi Day and STEM

by Dr. Rick

Quick, what number gets its own Special Day and even has schools, families and websites devoted to its celebration?


Why, it’s pi, of course, that versatile, constant number that refers to the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.  It’s always 3.14 (or 3.14159 if you want to be especially precise about it), so March 14 – 3/14, get it? – is the day when math teachers use the occasion to bring attention to this useful number.  The ones who are obsessive sticklers for precision stage their celebrations for March 14 at 1:59.  The Mr. and Ms. Monks of Math.


Pi is always 3.14 no matter which circle you use to compute it.  It appears as a constant in a wide range of math problems.  The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians knew about pi.  Perhaps in our perpetually changing world we’re somehow comforted by something so constant, so reliable, so invariable, so historic.


There are lots and lots of activities that math teachers recommend for their math colleagues and students’ families to reinforce an understanding of pi.  (An old English teacher unfamiliar with teaching about the ratio of circumference to diameter, I am amazed at the sheer number and creativity of these activities.  You can find scads of them from the Math Forum of Drexel, one of my favorite math websites, at www.mathforum.org.  Another useful site is www.education-world.com, where you’ll find more lesson plans and family activities.)


Here’s a sampler.

  1. Compare the volume of slices taken from round and rectangular cakes.  In my mind’s eye I can see children and teens in classrooms all over the country on March 14, 1:59 or not, clustered around cakes of all kinds and eagerly, hungrily, doing the math.

  2. Compare the radii of sprinklers in a garden.  Again, I can just imagine kids outdoors on schools’ front lawns or in their own family gardens, moving, measuring, and yes, getting a little wet, as they do the math.

  3. How many feet does the tip of the minute hand travel in an hour on the clock on Philadelphia’s City Hall?  Or on Baltimore’s Bromo Seltzer Tower?  Or on London’s Big Ben?  Or on the church steeple’s clock in your own neighborhood?

  4. Using colorful beads of many colors, make a pi necklace to reinforce the idea that some numbers never repeat or end.

March is National Math Month, so you’re no doubt hearing a lot about a relatively new acronym in education, STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.


Educators everywhere are working to ensure a high quality of STEM education at all levels of schooling, recognizing that students today more than ever need an understanding of science and math principles.  That means a working knowledge of computers – both hardware and software – and problem-solving skills.  As we prepare our kids for 21st century skills, values, and futures (see my blog of March 9, 2009), we’re acknowledging and acting on our country’s need for homegrown scientists and engineers to do the technological research and development vital to our economic growth.  We’re providing technologically-proficient workers for a science-based, high tech workforce.  And we’re preparing a scientifically literate populace, not only taking advantage of technology but having a basic understanding of its workings.


So, on National Pi Day (which is also the birthday of Albert Einstein, a fortuitous coincidence that I find deeply satisfying somehow and makes me smile at the occasional aptness of Fate) and during National Math Month, let’s redouble our efforts to be good math role models for our kids, active supporters of their math teachers, and stricter monitors of their homework, study, and testing activities.


Look at the “Archives” section of my blog for more math-related postings.




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