Making Math Local- Intermediate Ferry Problems Brainstorming

Welcome to my first blog post on using problem-based learning (PBL) in intermediate math!  I’m both a new teacher and new to PBL, so this post and those to follow will highlight my learnings from expert PBL educators, my ideas within BC’s new curriculum, and my experiences in the classroom.  This blog will document my learning with PBL and hopefully help me connect and learn from other educators using embracing PBL in their classrooms!

I was inspired this week by Dan Meyer’s TEDtalk entitled “Math Class Needs a Makeover” in which he shows how he takes a typical textbook question and reworks it to stretch student thinking and make math relevant and accessible.

I wanted to see if I could do the same with an elementary textbook question, but my approach had to be a bit different because:

a) Dan Meyer has tons of experience doing this, and this is my first attempt at PBL in math.

b) Elementary textbooks don’t tend to include the same multi-step problems that high school textbooks do, making them a bit harder to break down.

I decided on choosing a shorter problem to build upon and try to transform it into a problem-based learning jumping point.  I used Math Makes Sense 5, as this textbook is frequently used in the classrooms I’ve taught in.  As it’s spring break, this week is just a brainstorm, and I’m hoping to test some of my ideas out in the classroom in the spring.

Sample Math Makes Sense Problems (Pg 196):  

A ferry leaves Port Hardy at 07:30 and arrives in Prince Rupert at 22:45.  How long is the journey?

An overnight ferry leaves Shearwater at 23:45 and arrives in Port Hardy at 08:10.  How long is the journey? 

(Morrow, P., Connelly, R., Appel, R., Chichak, D., Keyes, B., Johnston, J.,… Jeroski, J. (2005). Math makes sense 5. Pearson Education Canada.)


New Curriculum Connections in Grades 4 and 5:

Curricular Competency:

  • Engage in problem-solving experiences that are connected to place, story, and cultural practices relevant to the local community (4, 5)


  • How to tell time with analog and digital clocks, including 12- and 24-hour clocks (4)
  • Duration, using measurement of time (5)
  • Number concepts to 1000000, Multiplication and division to three digits (5)


The original problems were simple 24 hr conversion, adding on/subtraction questions.  However, if you actually look at the BC Ferries schedule, it doesn’t actually use 24-hour time.  Not saying you couldn’t still use this as a jumping point for exploring 24-hour clocks if students were asked to convert for a purpose, but the problems as they are in Math Makes Sense don’t really connect with how students may interact with ferry schedules outside of school.

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So, how can ferry schedules be used to spark a PBL math lesson, or project?

Some ideas:

  • You’re in charge of designing a new ferry schedule from Salt Spring Island (Fulford Harbour) to Victoria (Swartz Bay) to replace the current ferry, the Skeena Queen
    • What size of boat should you use?- capacity, cars vs. walk-ons…
    • When will the ferries run (could be in 12-, 24-hour clock, or both)
  • You need to get from one of the Southern Gulf Islands to Vancouver.  Should you take the ferry through Swartz Bay, or a Gulf Island ferry?- much simpler of a problem, but not as clear cut if you look at different times, time vs. cost, ease of travel…
  • Your group is in charge of proposing a new ferry route (possibly the rumoured downtown Victoria-Vancouver route) .  Your group needs to come up with a timetable using the 24-hour clock and choose what size of ferry (how many cars/passengers can travel each trip) the route will use.

Stay tuned for an updated post of how this works in the classroom!

What are some other opportunities for place-based math on the West Coast?  What have you tried in your classroom?  Or local connections to other places?  Feedback? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


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