This semesters I am teaching a course to 12-13 year old kids in which they are supposed to learn the basics of spreadsheet usage.

I am having difficult in coming up with fun / interesting exercises to teach them the basic functions, such as average, max, minimum and the like. One of the biggest problems is having only a 50 minutes long lesson every two weeks.

I've tried so far:

  • Teaching them to plot relations using a dispersion graphic: they would produce the axes and plot relations such as linear and quadratic formulas, exponential, etc.
  • Introduced them to simple recurrences such as the Fibonacci sequence and the discrete logistic map.
  • Using stock data to teach them some descriptive statistics.

What else would be proper, and preferably fun, to teach them?

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    $\begingroup$ Conway's Game of Life comes to mind, as well as other representatives of the dynamics of cellular automata. Applications like loan payments and annuity payments are good. Showing probablility paradoxes like baseball averages and things like nontransitive dice are a way to introduce Markov chains. Gerhard "Hasn't Used Excel In Years" Paseman, 2015.04.16 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Apr 16 '15 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ I've given them some interest (and used it to "define" $e$). I'll sure try something like the Game of Life, or maybe Schelling's segregation matrix. Thanks for the reminder! $\endgroup$ – Lucas Virgili Apr 16 '15 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ Try S Abramovich on spreadsheets (I like his work around the multiplication table). You might also check out the journal Spreadsheets in Education. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Apr 17 '15 at 6:50
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    $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman thank you very much for the Abramovich reference. I believe I will use his ideas in the next class. $\endgroup$ – Lucas Virgili Apr 17 '15 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ @LucasVirgili You're welcome! I know that Art Bardige is also thinking about mathematics education and spreadsheets; in fact, he and Peter Mili presented on the topic this morning at NCTM 2015. Nothing of his comes to (my) mind at the moment, but Bardige's website is here. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Apr 17 '15 at 22:43

Based on your unfortunate lack of time my answer is going to be a list of suggestions that I believe could be completed and meaningful given the amount of time you have with your students. Not all of them pertain directly with math (calculations, computations, formulas, etc), but I believe that 1) the real power of spreadsheets is their ability to organize, structure, and access data and 2) that the thinking behind these concepts is very mathematical.

  • You mentioned that they have already used the technology to explore fitting various functions to graphs. I think this can open up into a great lesson on growth of functions, having them write basic formulas to model linear, log, quadratic, cubic, exponential, factorial, etc. and then graph them and see how the growth differs between the types of functions

  • You mentioned some recursive sequences/series that you looked at, how about Newton's method, calculating square roots or logarithms "by hand", or approximating pi by one of the many ways that are out there. Very cool things to be able to do by hand because it takes a lot of the "magic" out of pressing a button on a calculator and lets the students know that there is a reason why these things work and are the way they are

  • Have them do more with descriptive data but let them find their own datasets for data that might be meaningful to them (possibly video game sales, sports records, music sales, etc). It will reinforce their prior learnings and give them a sense of agency and ownership. I would have them research during their time out of the classroom and come with a dataset ready to go. Alternatively, you could spend one class finding datasets, discussing different biases, sample sizes, correlation, causation, etc. and then the next class analyze it

  • A large part of being able to effectively use a spreadsheet is organization and performing tasks like sort and merge. If you have not already talked about this I would suggest doing so and possibly using a classroom dataset of say, everyones height, eye color, length of name in letters, etc and either start with a poorly organized structure of the data and discuss why it is poor and how to fix it or start from scratch and discuss along the way meaningful ways to structure data

  • Use whichever spreadsheet software (i'm assuming google sheets or excel) as a means to talk about software, coding, and computer languages, possibly having them write a very simple macro or two after a lesson or two. I think that the real power in these software is their extensibility, if you know how to work it. I know you said that you are tasked with the basics, but it sounds like they are catching on so there is no reason not to push them to explore the tool

I hope this is helpful and I wish you the best of luck :)


I used Excel to solve many of the problems I encountered in Project Euler. I bet they'd find some of those problems interesting and accessible.

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    $\begingroup$ wow, I had totally forgotten about project Euler! thanks! $\endgroup$ – Lucas Virgili Apr 18 '15 at 17:51

you might find this paper "Designing Spreadsheet-Based Tasks for Purposeful Algebra" (and a couple of some others written by the same authors and about the same year) useful.

PS. Originally, I meant to put this answer as a comment. But, I realized that I don't know how to hyperlink inside a comment. Could someone who knows please let me know how?

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    $\begingroup$ [text that is shown here](ULR link here) produces a clickable link. $\endgroup$ – Joseph O'Rourke Apr 18 '15 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JosephO'Rourke Many thanks. This will save you from my future answers :) $\endgroup$ – Amir Asghari Apr 18 '15 at 23:20
  1. Write a formula that converts Centigrade to Fahrenheit or vice versa. Plug in some common temperatures for the climate where you live. They can print out the table of values, nice and big, and post it on the wall at home and at school. At your next meeting, have a little Conversion Bee, with little prizes for the top three students. Ask for volunteers to bring popcorn to share. (Don't make it cutthroat -- keep it fun.)

  2. Have them design and conduct a survey of fellow students, asking, for example, "What is your favorite sport to watch? And your favorite sport to practice?" They can work in small groups. Each group should choose a different survey. The survey results will be the data they will use for the descriptive stastictics.

  3. Have them download nutrition facts from the standard fast food restaurants, and then analyze (e.g. there's lots of opportunity for averaging).

  4. Same but with the various items of candy that are given out at Halloween. This would require some sorting.


How to Lie with Statistics. Many graphs in newspapers are misleading because the authors used Excel's default graph settings, instead of making sure to set the range of the y-axis to start at zero.

Are you using a recent version of Microsoft Excel, such as Excel 2013? Excel 2013's PowerPivot and PivotChart features are amazing. [Note: I currently work as a contractor for Microsoft using these tools.] Bill Jelen (Mr. Excel) has written a book on Excel 2013 Pivot Table Data Crunching.

If you have a suitable data set (like the populations of various states over time, or baseball statistics, or...) you could have the students graph interesting data changes (like the population trend of a city or state, or a batter's on-base percentage versus time, or a batter's home-run rate with runners in scoring position, or...)

A graph of the population of a chosen city or state over time is nice. A PivotChart of the same thing is amazing. You can graph how the number of teenage girls in a city has changed over time. You can then graph how the number of 13 year-old girls and 13 year-old boys in the city has changed. Then, you can change a single filter to get a similar graph for a different city.

In my job, I try to make graphs that are very easy to understand. That usually means:

  • Limiting the number of things being graphed.
  • Avoiding having lots of lines cross each other in the plot area.
  • A chart title that describes the point of the chart.
  • Either an easy-to-read axis scale, or a data table
  • Descriptive axis titles (unless the axis scale shows that the units are times)
  • Consistently coloring matching things in different graphs.
  • Unless I have a really good reason not to (like for date/time axes), starting axis scales at zero.
  • Where practical, making the axis scales match in corresponding graphs.
  • Avoiding complicated definitions for what is being graphed. It is easier to say "At-bats in May" or "At-bats before injury" than "At-bats from May 4 through June 6".
  • Making sure that the field names (as shown on the chart) are easy to understand.
  • Hiding redundant features (like a legend that says "Total" when there is only one variable being graphed).

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