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Katniss Everdeen: Heroine. Warrior. Math Tutor.

• August 28, 2012 • 4:30 PM

The best-selling novel and top-grossing film The Hunger Games has been called an exciting thriller, a metaphor for our get-ahead-at-all-costs society, and disturbing look at a dark future. Now we can add: It’s also an effective way to teach kids some of the fundamentals of mathematics.

At least, that’s the argument made by Michael A. Lewis of Hunter College. Writing in the splendidly named Journal of Humanistic Mathematics (is there any other kind?), he describes himself as “a quantitative social worker/sociologist who teaches, among other things, statistics.”

A few months back, Lewis took his wife, 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old nephew to see the film, which concerns a contest in which 24 youngsters fight to the death on national television. He found himself engrossed not just by the story and its themes, but also by the possibilities it opens up for math teachers.

The book and movie “could, I believe, easily be used to turn students and others on to some of the different, but no less compelling, thrills that can be found in mathematics,” he writes.

Lewis cites several ways math teachers can incorporate The Hunger Games into their lesson plans. He notes the lottery that determines which teens are chosen (which is described in detail in the book) provide a great way to talk about probability and “decision theory.”

“A family’s decision about whether to enter kids’ names (into the lottery) a higher number of times in exchange for more food will depend … on their assessment of the probability of having their kid chosen for the game if they do,” Lewis notes. He compares this to such real-life decisions as choosing to live in an earthquake-prone area, or taking certain precautions to not catch diseases.

The game itself can help kids learn about—you guessed it—game theory, which governs situations “where the outcomes of one’s decision depends on decisions made by others.” He notes that when some of the young combatants form coalitions, they run into a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game-type problem.

Should they go to sleep at night, and risk being killed by one of their (temporary) allies? Or should they stay awake as long as possible? If everyone opts for the latter, it weakens the strength of the entire group, since none of them will be fresh to fight off outside challengers. The best choice for each individual is a poor choice for the entire group.

As Lewis notes, much has been written about this classic situation. Relating it to The Hunger Games may make it more real, and more interesting, to young learners. All in all, he calls the book and movie “a great source of mathematical inspiration, perhaps the best source we have seen from popular culture in some time.”

Don’t look for that quote to make it onto the DVD packaging.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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