Modeling Math Using the Olympics

From arithmetic to calculus, I see mathematics everywhere around Pyeongchang during the winter Olympic games. I’m also thinking about all of the math through the lens of CCSSM’s Mathematical Practice 4: Model with Mathematics. It says, “Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace. They can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions. They routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation and reflect on whether the results make sense, possibly improving the model if it has not served its purpose.”

Math matters in this year’s Winter Olympics. There are over 3800 athletes looking to win 306 medals to be awarded in 102 events in 15 sport disciplines. But these are only the base numbers of the games. Math is also found in all the scores, measurements, motions, and quantities. It can be as easy as how many hockey players are on the ice, or how many times the puck has gone into the net. Events that are timed, like the slaloms, bobsled, and speed skating are all math in motion. Rate is just the mathematical term for speed. Rate equals distance divided by time. In the 1,000-meter speed skating race, the meters are the distance and the time is how long it takes the skater to finish. Divide the distance (1,000 meters) by the time of each athlete and you get their rate.

Calculus is also used to understand the changing acceleration and velocities. The skaters all start at zero, but how is the winner determined? Is it the skater that goes the fastest or is it the skater that starts fast then tapers off near the end? Or is it the skater that starts slow and then ramps up at the end? By using calculus skaters can determine the best strategy to cross the finish line first.

What about geometry in the Olympics? Think about the lines. Finish lines, start lines, sight lines, race lines. Geometry is evident in many sports, but especially in hockey. Players use angles of reflection, measuring angles, and angles of incidence.

Whether it is algebra, calculus, geometry or arithmetic, math is all around the athletes in Pyeongchang. The possibilities are endless. Explore the mathematics of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games with your students.

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