This article originally appeared in my school’s monthly magazine, and was co-written with Chelsea Todd, a 4th grade teacher at my school. Note that the lesson idea presented below is Chelsea’s idea.

The 4th grade math classes were recently completely engaged with a challenging but slightly unusual mathematical task. Students had been studying area and perimeter with the guiding question, “How do area and perimeter help us to construct things?”. For their summative project, students designed and constructed a model building design, starting first with the architectural blueprints and completing their project with the structure. They had the choice to build their world virtually using Minecraft or to use Lego blocks. During the two classes, it looked like every student was engaged in the task for the entire class time, and in fact sometimes their concentration on their work during the task made it difficult to interrupt them to ask questions!

In the first class, students designed blueprints on graph paper, being sure to include accurate labels of the values and calculations of each shape’s area and perimeter. They spent the entire time busy at work, trying to create complicated designs, knowing that they would be asked to recreate these designs the following day. They used their knowledge of area and perimeter to accurately label their work, often re-checking their values to ensure that their blueprints accurately captured their intentions.

In the second class, students recreated their blueprints, either using Minecraft or Lego blocks. They brought in their own computers if they were using Minecraft, and at one point we noticed that there were seven different kinds of computers in use. If they had Lego at home, the students brought that in as well, and extra Lego and building boards were provided for all other students.

The students had to use their blueprints and their models to calculate the area and perimeter of their designs, with some students also calculating the total volume, and explain their solutions. This task therefore assessed the students’ ability to create and read a blueprint, calculate perimeter and area, and communicate their understanding of mathematics. It also required them to demonstrate their visualization skills to transfer their 2-D plans to a 3-D structure, an area of mathematics that often falls second to calculations.

During the lesson, students were observed problem-solving using mathematics and applying mathematics skills they had previously learned. The students had to continue to develop their numeracy skills while at the same time starting some pre-algebraic reasoning, as they tried to get the scale and dimensions of their blueprint to match their constructed diagrams.

The context of the problem was realistic, so that students should have seen that mathematics is something that one can use in one’s life. The context helped students draw connections that they may have otherwise not understood; for example, the relationship between multiplying two numbers and the area of a rectangle. We hope this will keep students, and their teachers, inspired about mathematics!

Probably the best sign that this is a project worth doing actually came from the fifth grade students. When they heard that this year’s fourth grade class was breaking out the Lego, they said, “Oh, I remember doing that project. That was fun!” The fifth graders did a project that involved practicing skills, learning mathematics in context, and they not only remember doing it, they found it fun. That sounds like a success to me.