MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Connections: Linking Mathematics to Social Studies, Art, and Science

From Middle School Portal

Connections! Linking Mathematics to Social Studies, Art, and Science - Introduction

The second publication in our Connections series, Math History as a Teaching and Learning Tool, identifies resources that support the teaching of math history as context for topics in a standard middle school mathematics curriculum.

Teaching that integrates the curriculum is often set as a goal for the middle school but is not so often reached. Some subjects seem to fit together naturally; for example, social studies with literature and even science. But mathematics can seem the most difficult to incorporate into interdisciplinary planning. Even so, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) urges math teachers to "enhance students' understanding of mathematics by using other disciplines as sources of problem solving" (2000, p. 278). It is through an integrated unit of study that students can see measurement and data analysis in the context of science, or improve their sense of shape, symmetry, and similarity through the study of art. Applying mathematics to other subject areas helps students see where mathematics fits into the world at large.

This publication offers online resources that connect mathematics to three subject areas: social studies, art, and science. Each section contains lesson plans, problems to solve, and examples of mathematics at work within contexts not usually associated with school mathematics. What is the point of integrating these disciplines? NCTM has reached this conclusion: "If all the middle-grades teachers in a school do their best to connect content areas, mathematics and other disciplines will be seen as permeating life and not as just existing in isolation" (p. 279).

Background Information for Teachers

Mathematics teachers who want to work across disciplines can find that a main obstacle is their comfort level with other subject matter. The following resources offer either general background or specific support in teaching the interdisciplinary lessons provided in this issue.

Social Studies

The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive This is a top site on the web for mathematics history. You will find overviews of mathematics in various cultures (Chinese, Mayan, Babylonian) and histories of the development of such topics as algebra and number theory. The site also contains short biographies of more than 1,300 mathematicians.

Journal of Online Mathematics and Its Applications This online magazine provides "a wealth of resources to help teach mathematics using its history." Using the search feature in the left-hand margin, select either "Classroom Suggestions" or "Articles." Although much on the site is aimed at the university level, the classroom suggestions include math history topics appropriate for the middle school classroom. The articles will generally interest math teachers more than students, providing you background on mathematics history; some articles, however, may prove useful for student research, such as "Eratosthenes and the Mystery of the Stades." Free registration is required.


Fractal Geometry Developed to support a first course in fractal geometry for university students, the site is incredibly deep but not overly abstract. It moves from the most basic definitions to nontechnical discussions to involved mathematical formulations. By selecting Panorama of Uses in the left-hand margin, you will find such interesting topics as "Fractals in Architecture" and "Forgeries of Nature." Applets and lab activities illustrate and enhance the discussion throughout.

Classroom Polyhedral Activities In these lesson ideas for teachers, George W. Hart, polyhedral master, gives ideas and instructions on how to construct polyhedral models from paper, soda straws, wood, and the Zometool kit. Although Hart does not give step-by-step directions here, he does make his ideas clear and shows a picture of each model. Part of Hart's Virtual Polyhedra: The Encyclopedia of Polyhedra.


This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics This online booklet briefly introduces the concept of plate tectonics through visuals and text. You will find historical perspective, how the theory was developed, how the plates move, and even the unanswered questions held by scientists today on plate tectonics.

Fundamentals of Flight, Instructor's Text This online text first considers flight as seen in nature—the gliding flight of plants and some animals and the true flight of insects, birds, and bats. It goes on to discuss specific principles of aeronautics; of these, the most important to Plane Math is its explanation of the four basic forces of flight.

Connecting Math to Social Studies

Social studies covers a diverse group of topics, including history, civics, maps, world cultures, and, of course, current events. These online resources offer lesson ideas on these topics, each highlighting mathematical skills and processes. You may decide that one of these ideas could work as part of an integrated project in your middle school program. Certainly, they open mathematics instruction to a wider range of topics.

Links to Information on Number Systems Working on a project that connects math to ancient history? These sites, selected by a middle school teacher, cover topics about different numbering systems: Arabic, Chinese, Mayan, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian.

The New York Times Daily Lesson Plan: Mathematics These lesson plans from the New York Times draw on real-world issues and statistics to connect math to current events. As an example, one lesson idea begins with statistics about gun injuries; students then convert these statistics to visual displays and a poster campaign about the dangers of guns in the home. Handouts are included as well as links to related Times articles.

Connecting Math to Art

Possibly for students the most surprising connection to math is art. These resources are proof of that connection through fractals, architecture, tessellations, tilings, and 3-D geometric figures. Some sites are like art galleries—just for visiting, but others involve students in creating their own artistic designs. All involve significant mathematics!

Cynthia Lanius' Fractal Unit A former mathematics teacher created this unit for middle school students. The lessons begin with a discussion of why we study fractals and then provide step-by-step explanations of how to make fractals, first by hand and then using Java applets. But the unit goes further; it actually explains the properties of fractals in terms that make sense to students and teachers alike. Excellent material!

Connecting Math to Science

These resources could each serve as an integrated project for a math-science teacher team. Each offers middle grade students opportunities to apply mathematical processes and skills to the study of a scientific concept. And each was selected for its potential to show mathematics at work in the wide world outside the textbook.

Plane Math There are "real" problems to solve as students consider such aeronautical questions as flight paths, passenger capacity, lift off, and airplane design. Designed as an online curriculum for students with physical disabilities in grades 4-7, the activities involve students in simulated aeronautics-related careers. The material is presented with color and pizzazz but covers significant mathematical topics: computation, pre-algebra, measurement, problem solving, and reading and interpreting charts.

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: The International Boiling Point Project Here is the question: What causes a pot of water to boil? In this project, students consider several factors that could affect the boiling point of water, such as room temperature, elevation, volume of water, and heating device. Students from all over the world boil water at different elevations and post data on these factors to discover which has the greatest influence on boiling point. Careful and complete instructions are included on how to control the variables in the experiment, how to record information, and how to post results to the international database. Teachers will also find lesson plans and thoughtful questions for class discussion.

The Global Sun Temperature Project In this project, students from around the world gather data to determine how average daily temperature and hours of sunlight change with distance from the equator. They apply their knowledge of measurement, data collection and analysis as they monitor temperature and hours of sunlight over a common week. In comparing their results with classes from all over the world, they look for patterns in relation to their proximity to the equator. Lesson plans, all worksheets, and directions for joining the international collection of data are available on the site.

Tidepool Math This site offers an innovative curriculum for K-8 mathematics. Based on a study of tidepools of the Pacific, the two lessons ask students to work as scientists—counting the number of mussels in a sample, estimating the number in the entire pool, determining the mean and looking for outliers. Photographs (linked from the homepage) of the mussel beds are to be enlarged in order for students to actually make a count of the sample. The experience of counting the mussels and reaching conclusions mirrors the work of scientists who study biological environments using the tools of mathematics. Provided in the lessons are questions for discussion and background information for the teacher. Also included on the site are flashcards of different creatures that inhabit tidal pools. This is one of several activities at Minerals Management Services: Kids Pages from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Project SkyMath: Making Mathematical Connections This middle school mathematics module, developed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), uses real-time weather data and current environmental issues to promote the learning of mathematics. Students collect temperature data, identify various statistics of the data, and read and interpret temperature maps. These activities are solidly connected to data analysis, patterns, statistics and measurement. The web site includes all of the background information needed for teachers to use the module as well as lesson plans, student handouts, and assessments.

Musical Plates: A Study of Earthquakes and Plate Tectonics This online project immerses students in real-time data, its collection and analysis. Through lessons complete with activity sheets, students study the correlation between earthquakes and tectonic plates; ultimately, they determine whether or not there is a relationship between volcanoes and plate boundaries. Activities link students to real-time earthquake and volcano data, introduce them to meaningful collection and display of the data, and guide them in how use the information to solve a real-world problem.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related math-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of math-related careers (click on the Math link at the bottom of the home page).

NCTM Standards

Connections is one of the process standards highlighted in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. The process standard refers not only to mathematics connections across disciplines, as featured in this publication, but also to mathematics connections between one concept and another (ratio and slope, for example) and between one topic and another (algebra and geometry, for instance). To see the specific expectations of the standard, go to the NCTM document.

In this publication, we address NCTM's admonition to foster integrated units of study because "school mathematics experiences at all levels should include opportunities to learn about mathematics by working on problems arising in contexts outside of mathematics" (NCTM, 2000, pp. 65-66). In referring directly to middle-grades students, the NCTM document observes, "Thinking mathematically involves looking for connections, and making connections builds mathematical understanding" (p. 274). It becomes, then, the teacher's role to select problems that connect mathematical ideas across the curriculum. Knowing how difficult it can be to find materials that demonstrate how mathematics applies to other disciplines, we offer here resources that aim to do just that. We hope you will find here a scenario that will connect the mathematics you are teaching to a real-world context that will intrigue and motivate your students.

Author and Copyright

Terese Herrera taught math several years at middle and high school levels, then earned a Ph.D. in mathematics education. She is a resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project.

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Copyright October 2006 - The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.