Activity ideas

5 Outdoor Math Activities with Real World Applications

If you’re a teacher, you know that combining math activities with real-world applications can make things a bit more interesting. Now taking applied math OUTSIDE?! Your students might just find that math is more fun than they ever thought it could be!

These math activity ideas are inspired by my work in the field of environmental science and can help bring the real experience of being a scientist to your (outdoor) classroom! I hope you enjoy them!

1. Use trigonometry to estimate tree height

Did you know that you can estimate the height of trees using an inclinometer, a measuring tape, and math?! Trigonometry is the study of angles, and this is just one of its many real-world applications!

To learn more, read my blog post about how to calculate tree height, which also includes steps to build your own simple inclinometer from household items. Or, check out my Math in the Forest unit for this activity and more.

2. Calculate the velocity and discharge of a stream

Watershed scientists need to know how fast and how fast much is flowing in streams and rivers. There are lots of methods for measuring this, but the most simple method for finding velocity and discharge is easy to do with students. Students will take simple measurements like stream width, depth, and the time it takes for a small object to float down a measured length of stream.

I wrote a whole blog post on how to calculate velocity and discharge of streams with your student. Get velocity and discharge equations, steps, and more in the post. You can also get worksheets, diagrams, and more for this lab activity in my Science on the River unit!

3. Snow water equivalent math activities

Anyone can set a container outside to measure precipitation. However, you can turn this simple meteorology exercise into an awesome applied math activity with some snowfall-related calculations!

Snow hydrologists are sometimes interested in the snow-to-liquid ratio – basically the amount of water in snow (a similar idea to density). You can calculate a snow-to-liquid ratio by melting down the snow in the container to find the snow water equivalent. Then, divide the depth of snow by the snow water equivalent to find the snow-to-liquid ratio:

snow-to-liquid ratio = snow depth/snow water equivalent

Additionally, you can calculate the total volume of water that falls on a roof or yard after a snowstorm, using area and snow water equivalent!

You’ll find equations, diagrams, and worksheets for these activities and more in my Science in the Snow unit!

4. Tree trunk diameter and finding pi activity

Tree trunk ring

This is one of my favorite applied math activities and it is so simple. Use a measuring tape to find the circumference of a tree. Then, use the following formula to calculate the tree’s diameter.

diameter = Circumference/π

Foresters may also use this idea to estimate the volume of wood in a tree’s trunk and estimate the amount of wood in forests.

Bonus: measure the circumference and diameter of a stump, and try calculating pi. How close can you get to actual pi? What might be a source of error?

Find all the worksheets and materials for this activity in my Math in the Forest unit. Plus, read about tree anatomy and tree rings in my blog posts.

5. Finding symmetry in nature

This outdoor geometry activity is great for younger groups. Nature is filled with symmetrical objects – from flowers to leaves, insects, snowflakes, and more, you will find lots of examples! Teach your students about planes of symmetry, reflectional symmetry, and rotational symmetry. Head outside to try and find different examples!

You will also find some fun symmetry activity ideas in my Geometry in the Snow unit, available for purchase in my shop.

Applied Math and Science Curriculum:

If you enjoyed these activity ideas, I think you will love my applied science and math units. They are filled with activities inspired by my experiences working as an environmental scientist. Plus, they include all the worksheets, diagrams, and math activities that you’ll need for an awesome lesson:

Are you interested in more nature-inspired activity ideas? Subscribe or follow Wild Earth Lab using the links below!

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