Math Comes to Life Through
Financial Literacy Projects

It was payday at Calhoun; people were busy depositing their checks, paying rent and reconciling their bank accounts. But these weren’t your typical employees: The scene was being played out in Molly Cohen’s fifth grade math class, where students were engaged in a classroom simulation as part of a project in financial literacy.

For this fifth grade economic construct, students earn pretend money through such jobs in the classroom as homework monitor, administrative assistant, banker and even loan officer. Students receive bi-monthly paychecks for their work (printed to look like real paychecks, with tax deductions), and are responsible for paying for basic needs—like rent for their seats.

Math topics came to life through the project: Students practiced working with decimals while balancing the withdrawal and deposit columns of their bank sheets; they worked on percentages when calculating the interest of a loan; and through the simulated banker-client relationship, they learned to articulate these numerical concepts and work together to solve a problem.

The classroom economy also instilled a key non-math skill: responsibility. “When [my students] got a check, they worked harder to hold on to it than they would a homework assignment, since no replacements were given out for lost checks,” says Molly.

Another branch of fifth grade’s financial literacy curriculum was participation in the Stock Market Game, a national competition in which students invested pretend money in the real stock market. Fifth graders were divided into small groups, asked to research the financial market and economic vocabulary, and then invest $100,000 in a combination of stocks, bonds and mutual funds. 

While “investing” in the stock market, the students honed several of their mathematical skills: They multiplied when calculating the cost of potential shares, graphed the value of their portfolio over time, and used percentages and fractions to solve problems and make investment decisions.

Looking at math through this new lens had the added benefit of boosting the students’ confidence. Since success in the stock market is partially based on luck, even fifth graders who were previously intimidated by numbers discovered a new-found self-assurance while playing the game. And when the game concluded, Molly’s class received exciting news: A team of three of their female classmates had won third place in New York City!

By bringing real-world situations into the classroom, Calhoun fifth graders learned first hand about the impact of their own financial decisions. But the ultimate aim of the financial literacy curriculum went beyond creating smarter spenders. “When math is hands-on, it resonates more with students,” says Molly. “They’re much quicker to do the math when it’s put in a real-world context.” 


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