Many of us get hazy when numbers get big. I once heard the number 300 terabytes tossed out, and had a hard time envisioning it.
An engineer calculated it down to a comprehensible level for me: you’d need 300 terabytes of data space for 15,360 power users, about 62,000 ordinary workers, or the entire Library of Congress. Breaking a number down into something you can imagine helps you get a grip on big numbers.
Do the same for the numbers that are big to your students. Start with some great books:
- A Million Fish…More or Less, by Patricia C. McKissack tells the story of the time Hugh Thomas caught a million fish in the Bayou Clapateaux. Not only are there a million fish in the story, but there’s a turkey weighing 500 pounds, a calculation of years between 1542 and now, thousands of jumps with a jumprope, and a nice little word problem about how many feet per second an alligator can run.
- Millions of Cats , by Wanda Gag, has less actual math in it, but it has the nice repeated chorus,
“hundreds of cats,
thousands of cats,
millions and billions and trillions of cats.”
- If You Made a Million, by David M. Schwartz, gets down to real detail not only with big numbers, but with money as well. Check out his The Magic of a Million Activity Book, too.
- Six Million Paper Clips: The Making Of A Children’s Holocaust Memorial is the story of how a small school in Tennessee physically gathered enough paper clips to stand for the people killed in the Holocaust — a powerful example of people taking a big number and figuring out how to make it meaningful. This book is intended for grade 4-8.
More big number options:
- Enjoy Nikon’s Universcale for really big numbers, and enjoy it for really small numbers as well. Depending on your class’s skill and maturity level, this could be a good tech lesson or a pleasant naptime background. Either way, it’s eye-opening.
- Check out some big bug numbers.
- Bugs may give us big numbers, but human populations are pretty big, too. The USA Population Clock, a lesson from 2006, when the U.S. population hit 300 million, gives plenty of practice in visualizing and calculating with large numbers. Since current population figures are available, this lesson doesn’t go out of date — just plug in the most recent figures.
- E-learning for kids has a traditional online tutorial in sequences and patterns that uses some big numbers.