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I've been teaching high school math for over 20 years. I write about my experiences here and also share activities that I have done with my classes that have been successful (and some that have been not so successful).
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Best Math Project for High School Students



If you're looking for a math project idea for your high school students, then keep reading.

By far, the most interesting thing I do in my high school math classes is to give my students my How to Adult Project. Students select a profession with a salary and monthly student loan payment out of a hat. Working with a partner, they have to budget their money with the help of a spreadsheet in order to "buy" a house and a car in our metro area.

I love to do this project with my students because we don't do a lot of projects, and I like the change from the usual routine, and the students get to learn a bit about adulting in a fun but structured way. This project could work just as well with high school students as it does with middle school students.


BACKSTORY

A couple of years ago, I was looking for a project to do with my second-semester seniors in my on-level calculus class. If you teach high school seniors, then you know the struggle it is to get them to come to class at all, to come on time, or to do anything during class besides complain about how awful it is to be in school or how the administration has it out for them. 😕

The beauty of teaching this calculus class is that it is full of seniors, there is no external exam at the end of the year (like for the AP classes), and there is no set curriculum so I can move as fast or as slow as I want. 

Once we cover all of the pertinent calculus topics, we have about 3 to 4 weeks remaining. In the past, we did an extended unit of algebra and trigonometry in an effort to prepare them for a potential placement test at the students’ future colleges.

(click here if you want to read more about what I teach in my on-level calculus class.)

But one day, I decided that I wanted to cut the algebra and trigonometry unit in half and use some of that time for a mini financial math project. And so, the How to Adult Project was born.



STUDENT FEEDBACK

Some of the things that my students have said about this project:

"This project was very useful/helpful. The most useful project that any of my teachers have given me."

"Awesome project; very relevant, really appreciate the idea in prep for the future."

"I thought the project was great and straightforward!"




So what exactly do the students do?

 

PROJECT INSTRUCTIONS

Students work with a partner. If you have an odd number of students, have one group of 3. I once allowed a group of 4 students, which was a mistake; there was not enough work to go around.

Each student will draw a profession and salary out of a hat. Most students will also receive a monthly payment toward student loan debt.

I take about 20 to 30 minutes of the first day, giving direct instruction for setting up an Excel spreadsheet to create a budget.  Most students have little to no experience with Excel. It would certainly be easier for me to share my master spreadsheet directly with the students, but I want the setting up of the spreadsheet to be part of the “adulting” experience.

I give them guidelines such as:

  • Assume the average take-home pay (after taxes, social security, etc.) is 76%.
  • Partnerships should spend no more than 1/3 of your combined monthly take-home pay on a house payment (mortgage, taxes, and insurance).
  • Individuals should not let their total monthly vehicle expenses (car payment and insurance) exceed 10% of their monthly gross income.

After the students set up the spreadsheet, they start shopping online on real-estate and car dealership websites to find a house and car they like.

Next, they visit "the bank" (that’s me!) to ask for a (fake) loan. Read more below about the fun I have playing the role of the banker.


If you want my version of the project, which is EDITABLE, includes the rubric and the list of professions and salaries, click on the link.

 

STUDENT FINAL PRODUCT

The students create a Google Slides presentation where they first introduce themselves and share the backstory of their make-believe future selves. I encourage them to get creative, embellish and have a lot of fun with it. (For example, one student’s profession is a personal trainer. He embellished by saying he is a personal trainer for a celebrity athlete.)

The presentation must include a photo and specifications (price, square feet, etc.) of their three favorite houses and the same for the cars. Ultimately, the students must narrow their choices down to one house and one car per person. 

Students must also include a screenshot of the spreadsheet showing their calculations for the monthly payments.



Students write summary paragraphs about why they chose that house and that car and what they gained from the experience.

All I require from the students is the Google Slides presentation and that they complete a peer and self-evaluation.  I have never required that they stand in front of the class and share their presentation with their classmates, but that certainly could be done if you had time.


CAN BE USED WITH VIRTUAL STUDENTS

In the spring of 2020, when we were virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to the Google Slides presentation, I also required that each group make a video of them talking through their Google Slides presentation. Students posted their videos on Padlet.com. Each student was also required to watch and comment on at least two other group’s videos.

I did not take the time to walk through the creation of the spreadsheet when we were virtual; I didn’t want to keep them on the Google Meet for that length of time. (The morale of the seniors was low, and I was doing my best to be gracious.)  I posted my master spreadsheet on my class website for them to download and use. I also did not require the students to visit "the bank" to ask for a loan. I gave every group the same terms for the loans.

It was trickier in 2020 for the groups to work together, and they told me later it was more challenging to keep up with the deadline. But I was pleased with the final projects they produced.




THE CONSTRAINTS

In designing the project, I knew that I had to include some limitations. I wanted to allow the students to have some freedom, but I also needed to have a rubric so that I could grade them all the same even though everyone’s final product would be different.

Every year at least one student says they wish they could buy a house anywhere in the world.  I do not allow that much freedom because the cost of living differs in every city.

Hence, I only allow them to shop for houses in our metro area. Students quickly discover that not only are houses less expensive further from downtown, but also the property taxes are lower.

Students ask if they can buy a condominium or a townhouse instead of a single-family home. I allow that as long as they are buying and not renting.

Students always want to know if they go under budget for the house, can they go over budget on the car. I say no. I call this the Lance Rule. One year a student named Lance wanted to do precisely this, and I allowed it. He and his partner chose a house that, based on the photos, I think would not pass a health inspection, let alone an engineering inspection. And yet he chose an $80,000 car. 🙄

Now I tell the students that they *can* go over budget on the car, but if they go over by more than $100/month, then they will be penalized on the rubric.

For most of the out-of-the-box questions that they ask (can I buy an RV instead of a house and a car? Can’t I just ride my bike or use public transportation?) I say, “In life, yes, but in this project, no. There are instructions, and you need to follow them. You’re getting a grade for this."


GRADING THE PROJECT

I have a rubric with 14 different criteria. Most of the criteria are regarding, “did you include all required components? Photos, specifications, etc.” For most of the criteria, the students are given 0, 1, or 2 points.

The total number of possible points is around 30. I do a square root curve to get the final score. In other words, I take the points they earned, divide by 30, then take the square root of that number. For example, if a group earned 29 out of 30 points, I do the square root of 29/30, which is about 0.983; so in the gradebook, I put 98%. If a group earned 15 out of 30 points, I put 71% in the gradebook.


If you want my version of the projectwhich is editable, includes the rubric and the list of professions and salaries, click on the link.


ROLE-PLAYING

One of the most fun things about this project is that I get to do some role-playing as the banker. I put on fake glasses (old plastic sunglasses with the lenses removed), I have a nametag and a brochure.

The bank is my desk. I put the name of the bank on the wall behind me. I call it People’s Championship Bank. I put two chairs near my desk, and when they’re ready to visit the bank, I introduce myself using my first name. I ask them what their names are and how I can help them. They always find that part very amusing. Some of them even play along and give me a fake name.

This is not me, but this is how I imagine my students see me when I play the role of the banker.

Here are some fun interactions I have had with my students at "the bank":

  • I stepped out to go to the bathroom, and when I came back, two students were waiting at "the bank" and complained about the service.
  • I picked up my phone and pretended to be talking to someone. I might have even given the students the side-eye while I said (to no one) in my phone, "yeah, there's some young-looking guys here probably wanting a loan or something."
  • I closed the bank 10 minutes before class was over. One student asked, "Is the bank still open?" No. "Aw, I guess we can come back tomorrow."
  • When the first group came to the bank, I noticed that my brochure was folded wrong, so I blamed it on the intern.
  • A student referred to me as a teller, and I got angry and said, “I am not a teller! I am an account manager! This is my daddy’s bank and if you are rude to me one more time, I will call security and have you kicked out of here!”


AREN'T TEENAGERS FUNNY?

Here is a collection of some of the funniest conversations I have overheard while they worked on the project.

  • “I want to spend less on a house so that I can spend more on Xbox.”
  • "We don't need two bedrooms. We can share a bed."
  • "Well, that was a stressful day - why don't we go car shopping tomorrow?"
  • "Is this a bad time to tell you I am a hoarder? ... I need a basement just for my cats..."
  • "We can't carpool; as a paralegal, I could get called in anytime."
  • "What is wrong with me looking at 21 million dollar houses?"
  • “People don’t have to see your house, but people will see your car.”
  •  “We don’t want to buy a house. We are going to live in my car for a year and save money.” How are you going to shower? “Gym membership.”
  •  “I want to spend my money on clothes and entertainment, not food.”
  • The girl of one partnership was absent. Her male partner said she was absent because “she had to take the kids to the doctor.”
  • One year, two boys found a lovely house that was listed for $3000 or $11/month.  They called the number on the listing and talked to the real estate agent. They claimed they were recent college graduates. She said there was a mistake in the listing. It was supposed to say $3000/month. She then recruited them as clients and emailed them other listings.  One of the boys told me, “I feel so grown up. I have a realtor.”




SUGGESTIONS FOR CHANGES:

Most of these suggestions come from the students themselves. I don't implement most of these because I don't want to spend more than 3 class days on the project.

But if you wanted to expand this project, you could

  • do a more structured lesson on Excel
  • go into detail about the mortgage formula
  • allow the students to decide on their own profession and do the research for the salary
  • give some groups some make-believe children and a monthly daycare expense
  • let the students make a decision on how much of a down payment they want to put on the house (I have them randomly draw a percentage (5%, 10%, or 20%) out of a hat)
  • allow the students to create a complete budget which would include food, utilities, entertainment, etc.

 

CAUTIONARY TALE

Below are some common questions or misunderstandings by students as we go through this process.

  • If a group doesn't score 100% on this project, it is usually because they did not thoroughly read the instructions and the rubric.
  • When students come to "the bank" they are nervous about taking out a 30-year loan. They think they have to commit to keeping the house for 30 years.
  • Students want to use the mortgage calculators that are advertised on real-estate websites. I tell them to ignore those because I want them to use the spreadsheet. One student even asked me, "do we have to put a down payment?" because a real-estate site said, "no down payment required." 😐
  • Students want to get the property tax information from the real-estate website instead of searching the government website.

If you want my version of the project, which is EDITABLE, includes the rubric, and the list of professions and salaries, click on the link.


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