Graph the Olympics!

Our grade 7 and 8 teachers recently finished a graphing and statistical analysis unit that was designed around the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The essential questions for this project were:

• Can different graphs change the perception of data?
• Are there data sets that are more appropriate for certain graphs?
• How do we determine the rankings/seedings for countries/athletes?
You can view the planning document here. This contains the outcomes and descriptions of various parts of the project.
The project involved students moving through a number of different graphing assignments:
1) in groups, students were assigned a participating country in the 2010 games. Students began by collecting data on their country’s previous Olympic record, and then chose a method to predict the number of medals that country would win this year. Student graphed a variety of methods before making their choice.
2) student choose a particular Canadian Athlete to follow. Using the “medal potential” data from the International Olympic Committee website, students created a number of probability experiments on the likelihood that their athlete would advance to the final round of their heats.
3) after the olympics, students imagined they were reporters for their country. In this role, students had to choose particular data sets that would make their country appear better in comparison to the 2 countries above and below them.

Much of the classroom discussion centred on the different ways to calculate which country “won” the Olympics. Students first looked at how the IOC organized the data and found that it is based on the number gold medals (and in the event of a tie subsequently looked at silver medals, and then bronze medals). Students then reorganized that data according to 2 alternate methods: by point system (that is, assigning a point for each colour of medal with the most points for gold) and by total medal count (that is, the sum of gold, silver, and bronze). Students then chose which method in their opinion was the “fairest” way of representing the top 20 countries.
Because of varying opinions on the matter, students had some rich, engaging discussions on this topic. A few students (about 8%) agreed with the IOC system of using the gold medal count. They argued that having a gold medal equates with winning an event and that should have more gravity than any silver or bronze medal as those types of medals do not mean that a country has won a competition or an event. Approximately 5% of the students believed that the total medal count should be used as it is often used by the media. They also argued that the type of medal athletes earn should not matter as it is a huge accomplishment to win any medal and so it should be celebrated regardless of the medal colour.
For the most part (about 86%), however, students argued that a point system is the fairest way of ranking. Using a point system seemed like a compromise between the previous systems: it does not ignore all the other medals but at the same time puts more emphasis on the gold as it is, students argued, the most important one to win.
Overall, the teachers were very pleased with the both the engagement and understanding demonstrated by students. They felt this project was a strong example of how to build mathematical understanding around authentic, real-world situations. Throughout the two weeks of the project, students were excited about both the classroom work and their ability to apply their understanding to the Winter Games.
This video is a discussion with two of the grade 7 and grade 8 teachers explaining how the project unfolded, and the impact that they saw on student learning: