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Challenges in Real-World Math Lead Students to Success

As every grade-school kid knows, a well-fed caterpillar gets longer (and fatter) than a poorly fed caterpillar of the same species. Also, as every grade-school kid knows, a caterpillar that runs afoul of a hungry bird never becomes a beautiful butterfly. And so what does this have to do with STEM learning?


Well, studying caterpillars has always been more interesting than listening to a teacher talking about math problems found in a book. Almost every kid likes caterpillars. They are still interested in caterpillars by the time they reach the sixth grade, but most of them have been turned off to math by that time. Caterpillar, the board game, is an attempt by some innovative educators to stop that decline in math interest in 6th through 8th grade kids by combining caterpillars and math. Oh, and don’t forget dice!


Dice are a fixture in most board games, but in Caterpillar these dice also demonstrate the subtle workings of probability on the fate of the caterpillars. Each young player starts out with two chips representing two segments of a growing caterpillar on a mushroom square. With each throw of the dice the caterpillar gets longer. Squares representing sunlight are good for extra chips (sunlight equals more edible mushrooms and a longer caterpillar). The longest caterpillar wins when the last square is filled. But then fate (probability) steps in again to decide the real winner.


The young players then see what number was most frequently rolled by the dice during the game.  That number becomes “the bird” that eats caterpillars. Each player must then remove chips from any squares that had been determined by “the bird.” The longest caterpillar still standing (crawling) is now the actual winner.


We have described only one possible set of rules for this game. Teachers are urged to change the rules to challenge students and demonstrate how changing values equates to changed...caterpillars. For instance they might try playing the game with three dice--or one. Or even better, set up a 3D game board.


It should be obvious now how the board game Caterpillar is relevant to STEM learning. The caterpillar board game is a good example on how to apply theoretical math principles in a real-world context. By increasing expectations through interactive experiments, students learn how to keep challenging themselves.

  • Jan 29, 2014 12:56:00 PM
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