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Iditarod Gifted Math Project Stands Test of Time

Iditarod Gifted Math Project Stands Test of Time

Learning gets “real” when it revolves around a real event and real people. That could be why a gifted math project centered on the Iditarod Race has stood the test of time and continues to pop up in fourth grade math classrooms throughout Lakota.

Each year, Math Plus (or gifted identified) students get to relish in the excitement of the highly competitive long-distance sled dog race. The Alaskan tradition involves “mushers” and their team of dogs covering about 1,000 miles in approximately 10 days or less. 

How exactly does this translate to fourth grade math learning standards? Each student creates a scale model of the race. Each day for the duration of the race, they check the progress of their musher and move them along the model accordingly. Students learn how to calculate distances, compute elapsed time, and solve multi-step real-world, race-based problems.

“Calculating the scale factor for distances between checkpoints as the dogs move is exciting and motivating,” said Amy Alexander, the gifted intervention specialist (GIS) for both Cherokee Elementary and VanGorden Elementary. Cherokee fourth-graders in Wendy St. John's class pictured above.)

Alexander has teamed up with other GISs to continue building out the library of Google slides, videos, math questions and other resources for teachers to dig through when personalizing their own activities. “It's much more interesting than doing a bunch of repetitious practice on a worksheet!”

The original project was designed by former GIS Kim Carlson, now the innovation specialist at Woodland Elementary. Over the years, the project has been customized to fit different student needs and instructional styles, oftentimes resulting in a multi-disciplinary project that incorporates math, reading and even culinary skills.

At Union Elementary, for example, GIS Debra Roberts applauded the fourth grade reading teachers for introducing the Iditarod through non-fiction texts and then requiring students to complete different reading passages for each checkpoint along the race path. Students who completed the reading race were rewarded with a scavenger hunt of Iditarod facts.

Union math teacher Beth Fintel took it a step further, incorporating the school’s Culinary Center into her lesson. Her class made dog treats for Lakota’s 10 therapy dogs. The students practiced their fraction skills as they measured the ingredients for the dog treats and then sent the treats with a personalized note to each dog. 

Group of students surrounding a whiteboard covered with their Iditarod routes project

Jennifer Hall, a fourth grade teacher at Independence Elementary (her students pictured at right), said that it has been a bonus to increase her students’ schema and help them grow as readers. She noted a few students who would be reading a story about Balto, one of the first dogs to run the course. As an added bonus, the activity sparks conversation and is engaging and fun, she said. 

One of Hall’s students, Elliana Mosteller, shared that even her family followed the action; her musher was the topic of nightly dinnertime conversation, she said. 

“This project was one of my favorites in my life,” wrote one of her classmates, Sam Smith. “I learned so much and had so much fun. It inspired me to watch the movie ‘Togo’ and make a poster of my favorite musher. The best part is my favorite musher got second place!”

When a single lesson can generate that kind of response, there’s no question that the concepts behind it are there to stay. 

  • gifted
  • personalized learning
  • real world learning