Counting Idling Cars: An Elementary Math Project Based Learning Unit


I’m sitting in my car, waiting to pick up my son from school. It’s too cold to wait outside  this time of year so I keep the heat on, the engine running, and continue listening to the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast, the nerdiest podcast about basketball out there. I’m also quite anti-social, so I prefer to sit in the car, rather than, like, talk to people.

The driver of the car in front of me is doing the same (presumably, minus the podcast listening), ditto for the car behind of me. Maybe they’re reading “The Pickup Line,” an e-mag specifically for parents who sit in the car, waiting to pick up their kid from school. It occurs to me: boy there are a lot of cars idling in front of the school right now. I’d guess about 40. But y’know, someone should really count these up.

I get typically get to the school about 10 minutes before the release bell rings and I’m sort of in the middle of the pack of idling cars. I’d guess it’s about the average of when most cars arrive, again, most of which are idling. While I don’t conduct this environment-destroying practice all year long – when the weather is nice I’ll get out and check my phone, rather than talk to other parents – I practice it for maybe half the school year. That’s about 80 days or so.

80 days x 10 minutes of idling per day. Boy, 800 minutes of idling seems like a lot doesn’t it? And if there are indeed 40 cars at my son’s school, averaging a similar amount of idling time, we’re looking at 32,000 minutes of car idling. That’s over eight days of just idling.

We have a train that goes through town and we have signs encouraging us to turn off our car, rather than sit there idling, while we wait for the train to pass through. And I sometimes follow that instruction! I should probably follow it more often and more aggressively. But what about idling in the school pickup line? Or along the side of the school for us anti-socialites?

  • How much gas are we wasting?
  • How much Carbon Monoxide are we putting in the air?
  • How much gas waste / CO is the entire town/state/country contributing?
  • Would it be better to just switch off the car and start it later?

Boy, oh boy, someone oughta do the research on this…

What about at your school? How much gas is wasted in a day, week, or school year? Could students do the research? Could they create an awareness campaign for reducing gas waste (and presumably promoting cleaner air at their school)? Seems like something a bunch of go-getter students could handle.

If this scenario interests you and these questions intrigue you, consider adapting it to fir your school.

Update 8/25/2019: Stay tuned on this post or subscribe to follow ups. I like this project idea so much I’m going to be developing it and adding resources and sample project calendars.

Why we teach the “other stuff”


“I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t know how to talk to him.”

I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my back facing a mentor and her mentee, a college student who is apparently struggling through her semester. I can hear them clearly, even though I’m trying not to eavesdrop. The mentor is pleading with her mentee to email one of her professors to get help with an assignment, or even figure out when office hours are. “I don’t even know what to say!” the student response. The mentor patiently describes what questions to ask and how to start off the email, to no avail. “I don’t know how to talk to him!” she keeps responding. Pretty soon the student starts doing that thing that teenagers do where they start laughing when they’re really uncomfortable . It’s an unintentional defense mechanism employed by nearly all adolescents. She’s embarrassed by her inability to perform a seemingly simple task, so she starts blushing and laughing.

“I don’t want to talk to someone else.”

“That sounds like so many words.”

Later on, the mentor is trying to get the mentee to call the registrar’s office to find some information about something or other. Again, the student giggles that she doesn’t know how to talk over the phone. The mentor clearly cares deeply for her mentee. The mentee is clearly embarrassed at how nervous she is communicating to professionals.


Teachers sometimes scoff when we implore them to teach those other things. Things like communication skills, groupwork skills, self-reflection, these are “soft skills” that don’t appear in our scope and sequence. The state test doesn’t address them, and we have too much content already to cover to worry about these phony-baloney skills. I’m a math teacher, I teach math, that’s what I do. That’s my responsibility.

I can’t speak to the mentee’s instruction, but I’ve seen it frequently enough. Listening to her, she was paralyzed when it came to communicating with other adults, or at all. This is something she did not learn, let alone practice, while in High School. And now it’s preventing her from succeeding at the post-secondary level. Her paralysis wasn’t that she didn’t know her content well enough, it was that she didn’t have the ability to find out how to further her content knowledge. Whether that was technically the purview of her secondary math teacher or not, the responsibility to prepare students for post-secondary life falls on each of her teachers and the system in which they teach.

Does that mean that it is your responsibility – as, say, a math teacher – to teach students how to make phone calls? Or email professionals? Or create a study group? Or manage their time? Or teach all of those non-math skills?

Yes. Yes, it is.

The reason I taught math was because I love math. The reason I taught math the way I did was because I wanted students to grow as communicators and problem-solvers. Thankfully, I taught in a school in which we were unified that these were indeed skills we wanted our students to have when they graduated. I now coach in a model that aspires to make that happen for all students.

In our classrooms, we have students call and set up meetings with mentors in the business or academic communities. We have students stand and defend their work. We assess students on eye contact as well as content knowledge. And we teach them how to do it, not just tell them to and let them flounder. We do these, not in isolation, but as an entire school. In my class, this included these activities, as well as complex math problems that required collaboration, presentation of new and novel ideas, and practice and structures to handle it when these proved exceptionally difficult.


I’m heartened by these mentor-mentee relationships. Whether they were established via a specific program or they grew organically, there’s genuine care there. As exasperated as the mentor was, she showed active, authentic caring. I’m glad the mentee has that support system in place now that she’s in college. She’ll need the skills her mentor offers, as she clearly didn’t receive them in High School.