Blog: The joy of math – and how it’s used daily | Ashley O’Brien

Mathematics in middle school

All animals can communicate, but human beings are the only creatures that have language, as it is scientifically defined. That’s because we are such complex social creatures. Children will sometimes wonder why they have to read and write in school, and I always eagerly respond that they have to because they get to – because they can. Cats can’t read or write. We just aren’t cats. We’re special. But what about how we use math?

There is some debate about whether or not other animals “do” math. Dolphins and bats both use echolocation, for instance. These animals basically calculate how far away different objects are by how quickly sound returns to them.

“Math is a powerful force for good in the world. When we understand the numbers, we can act. When we weigh our options, we can decide.”

– Ashley O’Brien

Many animals can count. Dogs can identify very small numbers. Crows are believed to be able to count to six, and frogs can count up to ten.

There are a few other examples of animals using math in their everyday lives, but many of our young students would object. They’d say that’s not really math. That’s not math the way we use math.

I think they’re right, and that makes us lucky!

Math is the ‘building block’ of the universe

I don’t know if a tree alone in the woods would make a sound when it fell down, but math is out there with or without us. Often, my students will ask who invented math, or who invented algebra (or why they invented it!), but the truth is humans discovered math. It is always out there. It is the building block of the universe, and we are so lucky to be smart, curious creatures because we are able to find it, learn it, and then use it as a tool.

I tell my students that every problem in the world is a math problem. Whether we have too much of something or not enough of another thing – that’s a math problem. It’s about scale, weight, and balance. Whether a person overreacts, or an issue goes under reported, every problem comes down to numbers.

We could study math just for the pure joy of it – and I often do. But really, math is a powerful force for good in the world. When we understand the numbers, we can act. When we weigh our options, we can decide.

Examples of math in middle school

In middle school math this week, we began a project with mathematical models. We learned all about bar graphs, tables, pie charts, and line graphs. We looked at examples, then used data to make our own. We used computer software to create these representations, so my students aren’t just learning math, but also technology, which always gets them buzzing. They know technology is the future, and they love feeling like they are a part of it.

Next week, students will use this awesome knowledge to create their own mathematical representation for their museum project. While most of the museum assignment is self-directed, everyone has to make a mathematical representation. This requirement excites me because it helps students really see the math in everything. Some students are studying famous people. Some are studying businesses, or entire industries, some have historical topics, and others have technology topics. No matter what they’re studying, they are going to make a mathematical representation.

Sometimes it requires creative thinking, but the math is always there. It is the building block of our universe, and our daily lives. We are so lucky to be able to see it.

Ashley O’Brien is a middle school teacher at New Morning School in Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at