Making Sense of Human Impact: A Scientific Notation Project

A few years ago, I was on the hunt for a project related to scientific notation when I came across Liz Caffrey’s tweets about her Big Numbers Project.

I loved the idea and modified it slightly to make it about operations with scientific notation. The gist: As a class we will create a book in the style of How Much is a Million to help readers make sense of the scale of human impact on planet Earth. Each kid contributed one page to the book.

The Results:

A sampling of the book:

A sampling of their calculations:

Implementing the Project:

Unit Framing:

From the start of our exponent unit, we had been discussing our essential question: How do mathematicians deal with very large and very small numbers? On the first day of class, students brainstormed answers to the questions “What are some things that have very large measurements?” and “What are somethings that have very small measurements?” I recorded their ideas on chart paper and we continued to revisit and add to the anchor chart as kids were exposed to more contexts in our lessons. (Open Up Resources was the base curriculum.) We also watched the 1997 short film Powers of 10 and, of course, read “How Much is A Million?” by Steve Jenkins.

Project Work Time:

To launch the project, we watched a few short videos about the different ways humans are impacting the environment, highlighting how measuring human impact often requires big numbers. Then we introduced the project and I shared my example.


  • My example. (I will definitely work on improving this over time…I made it before I made the rubric!)
  • My co-teacher, a brilliant RSP teacher, created a graphic organizer that we ended up giving to all students to help them organize their thinking.

For the first day, we asked kids to do some brainstorming and researching and had them complete just the graphic organizer. We collected them and gave the kids feedback on post-it notes, paying attention to which kids would need more support during class. This was a critical step, because we had a handful of kids who were trying to comparing different types of measurements such as the height of trees to the area of Los Angeles or the weight of garbage to the height of the empire state building. The kids had two more days during class to work on their calculations and illustrations.


As I write this up, I have lots of ideas/questions about how to improve the project for the upcoming year. One reoccurring challenge is how to effectively build the (non-math) context for projects without taking up too much class time. Other wonderings I have are how to best have students present and share their work, also whether this could be turned into a group project. Ideas and improvements are ALWAYS welcome!

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