Are The Odds In Your Favor? Using The Hunger Games to Teach Probability

the hunger games lesson plansAre the Odds in Your Favor? Using The Hunger Games to Teach Probability

Written by Michelle Manno

 From Proper Fractions to Popular Culture

“When will we ever use this in real life?” is the math student complaint heard around the world. Though it comes as no surprise, recent statistics show that upwards to 60 percent of United States middle school students do not enjoy math, going so far as to state they’d ‘rather take out the garbage’ than do their homework (and we all know how much middle-schoolers enjoy their chores.) Math is a school subject that is often viewed as complex and tedious; students (and adults) have a hard time understanding how the Pythagorean Theorem or long division will help them in the real world.

These concerns are not far-fetched. Organizations such as Mathalicious have made it their mission to combat these concerns, offering ‘standards-based math through real-world topics.’ Mathalicious delves into today’s popular culture, aligning K-12 math with topics that students understand and relate to. Tackling issues from addition/subtraction to quadratic equations, Mathalicious’ lesson examples include:

  • Equations and Expressions: New-Tritional Info: How long would you have to run to burn off a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal
  • Percent & Probabilities: Wheel of Fortune? Does “bankrupt” come up more often than it should & is the show rigged

While we already know the benefits of bringing instances of popular culture into the classroom, the connection to math is especially useful. While aligning real-life events with difficult math content increases student motivation and engagement, it also decreases math and test anxiety. With high-stakes tests on the rise, students (and teachers) are feeling increased pressure to perform. Teaching math concepts through popular content allows students to have fun while learning complex topics.

Panem and Probability

Sarah Bush and Karen Karp tackle the relationship between math, popular culture and test anxiety in their article “Hunger Games: What Are The Chances?” Published in the March 2012 issue of Mathematics Teaching in Middle School, their article provides teachers with activities and assessments for teaching probability using Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Bush and Karp demonstrate how to utilize Panem’s practice of “reaping” and “tesserae” to show students a tangible and practical example of probability in real life. The story’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, explains Panem’s “bread and circus”-esque tradition as follows:

“You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. That’s true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem. But here’s the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well.  So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times. Once, because I had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for myself, Prim, and my mother. In fact, every year I have needed to do this. And the entries are cumulative. So now, at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping 20 times.”

Bush and Karp’s article explores the math behind Panem’s reaping, using probability equations and graphic calculator functions to determine each student’s chance of their name being picked.

Bush and Karp -jpeg

© Bush and Karp, 2012

The article also provides teachers with valuable and practical applications of this topic, all aligned to the Common Core Standards. This alignment is important not only because it adheres to education’s new teaching/learning standards, but also because the Common Core places a great emphasis on English-Language Arts skills across content area. In other words, using The Hunger Games (or other science-fiction literature) in the classroom allows both you and your students to be successful come assessment time.

This arguably real-world application of an otherwise monotonous and complex math topic allows students to understand the economic and emotional complications faced by characters in The Hunger Games, while also providing them with a deeper understanding of how math and probability impact daily life.

More Classroom Resources for Students & Teachers

  • PBS Math ClubA new web series that introduces math concepts in “cool ways,” using pop culture references and Common Core-aligned material.
  • Math Goes Pop! – Developed by a PhD Mathematics graduate from UCLA, Math Goes Pop discusses the intersections of math and popular culture, exploring topics such as books, movies, television, food, sports and politics.
  • Math and the Movies -This blog, developed by two veteran teachers, provides movie clips that demonstrate math and provides classroom worksheets and activities aligned with each scenario

Michelle Manno is an Associate Editor at where she writes about education reform, disability advocacy, and pop culture pedagogy. Join the @teachdotcom community on Twitter.

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