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Estimating Unknown Quantities

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What Is It?
Estimation is the process of guessing the approximate value of a number. An estimate is useful when: • • • An exact value is impossible or impractical to obtain (e.g., the number of stars in our galaxy) An approximate value is adequate (e.g., the number of people who will attend a party) An approximation serves as a rough check of the accuracy of a measurement (e.g., your scale says you weigh 1,850 pounds)

Estimation is an important aspect of quantitative thinking—and a critical life skill in a world in which we often need to make decisions on the basis of inexact or undefined information. Students at every grade level, fromkindergartento high school, should learn increasingly sophisticated estimation skills. Note: Students are often tested on estimation skills using multiple-choice items, such as "Which of these estimates most closely represents the total?" 11 + 17 + 15 = ? a. b. c. d. 20 30 40 50

This type of problem is more closely related to rounding than to estimating. In computations in which a quantity can be found, rounding numbers to reach a reasonable estimation is an important skill.
Types of Estimation

There are at least three different ways of estimating unknown quantities:

1. Eyeball Estimates
An "eyeball estimate" is an educated guess about a quantity based on sight and using some known benchmarks as guides. For example, based on our memories of how long a 12" ruler looks and how high 10' looks (the height of a basketball net), we can make an estimate about how high a ceiling is. Depending on our life experiences, the benchmarks that we use in making eyeball estimates may include the length of a football field (300 feet, 100 yards), a gallon of milk, Larry Bird's height (6' 9"), the size of a sweater that will fit you, the length of the top part of your thumb (about 1"), and so on. To be able to make eyeball estimates, children must have developed their own set of benchmark quantities for standard measures of length, volume, weight, time, money, and so on.

2. Sampling
Sampling is another estimation skill that is used when it is easier to count "parts" than "wholes." We count one part, estimate the amount of parts in the whole, and then multiply. For example, in trying to estimate the number of candies in a five-gallon jug, we might use a formula like this:

50 41. Estimate by Analysis An even more sophisticated kind of estimation involves dividing a complex problem into small parts. we can count the number of candies in five handfuls. find an average. A refinement of this method is to pull several samples and count the items in each.25 Cost/person 1.65 . consider the following budget for a simple party.50 8 4. In these kinds of problems where there is no correct solution.25 2.50 4. For example. spreadsheets are extremely valuable because students can create formulas for calculations. and multiply to find an estimate of the total. of cold cuts 5 Total Cost 8.25 8 2. then take the average as an estimate of the number of candies in a handful.00 22. and then multiply by the number of handfuls we estimate are in the jar.75 10. we might try to count the number of hairs in one square inch.50 6 glasses of punch per person 2 Calculations Items Cost/Item liters of punch 7 1.Total candies = candies per handful x handfuls per layer x layers per jug To find out how many times a human heart beats in a lifetime. and so on. then working out estimates for each part separately. and immediately see the implications of their changes. 3. To find the number of hairs on someone's head. Assumptions guests sandwiches per person cost of one liter of punch servings per liter cost of loaf of bread sandwiches per loaf cost of pound of cold cuts sandwiches per pound 25 1 1. and then multiply using this number. multiply by 60 to get the number in an hour.50 Total loaves of bread 4 lb. to find the number of candies in a jar. change assumptions easily. For example. we can count the number of heartbeats in a minute. make an assumption about the number of square inches in total.

html#ixzz1ZKUK6HRw Why Is It Important? Estimation serves as an important companion to computation. For example. and paper-and-pencil computations. the ability to make a reasonable estimate of an unknown quantity is anempoweringskill—it frees us from the need to be precise when precision is impossible and lets a number that isreasonably accuratebe good enough.g. The first problem is relatively easy to solve. to estimate the number of supermarkets in the United States.. It provides a tool for judging the reasonableness of calculator. "How long will it take a car to travel 5 miles if it is traveling 60 miles per hour?" We seldom ask students to calculate how fast cars are traveling along the street outside the school. This type of question might motivate students because it involves a part of their everyday lives. To calculate a rough estimate of the number of supermarkets in the United States. the estimate can be improved by refining some of the assumptions.mathematicsinstruction too often focuses on getting precise answers. mental. Estimate the population of the city. However. Other ways to improve the estimate might include taking actual measurements (how many slices of bread per loaf) or consulting experts. The estimated budget is based on past experiences and assumptions. Taken alone. 4. With further research (e. For example. However. Both involve the same sort of mathematics. there is no single correct answer. Multiple Methods One way to improve the accuracy of an estimate is to try more than one method of calculation.fen. has a single correct answer. and is not very interesting. Read more on TeacherVision:http://www. How Can You Make It Happen? . Another method method might be to visit a supermarket and try to estimate the number of customers in the store at that time. each method produces a very rough estimate. and use that number to divide to find an estimate of the number of people per supermarket.It's impossible to measure the exact amount of food or drink you need for a party since it can only be measured after the event has occurred. then estimate quantities and prices for each part to make an educated guess about how much the party will cost. Unfortunately. Break down the budget into its component parts ("itemizing"). you can predict the amount that you will need before the event. and create a budget for the Most importantly. a visit to the supermarket). used in combination. giving an estimate that we may be more confident in than if we used only one method. Use this number to estimate the total number of people who might be shoppingat that same timeeverywhere in the United States. divide the number of people in the United States (300 million in 2007) by this number. The second is somewhat harder to solve because it involves taking some actual measurements.teachervision. Calculate how many supermarkets it would take to accommodate this many people by dividing 300 million by the number of customers in your local market. they may serve as a check on each other. one method would be to count the number of supermarkets in one city. we frequently ask students to solve problems such as.

Someone who has never painted a house may estimate that it will take seven days to paint it. For example. are open-ended problems with no easy solution. After repeating this activity several times. Rather. Fermi Problems. students will have a much better sense of the length of a minute. and comfort with arangeof possible values as opposed to an exact value. Some students may balk at making assumptions for fear of not . named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. (You might teach them the trick of counting seconds by saying "one Mississippi. an experienced painter may estimate that a house will take four days to paint. based on the assumption that the house is similar to another house she painted previously. it is a "habit of mind" that should be cultivated over a lifetime. It takes a certain amount of courage to make an assumption. Once you've made your assumptions. 2. 1.. if students have internalized the benchmark of 1 foot. and have students share their strategies for making estimations. The assumptions that you make will be different depending on a your past experiences. an understanding of the concept of anassumption. A benchmark can be anything that allows students to relate the relative size or magnitude of something to a known size or magnitude. Students should have plenty of experiences in estimating heights. For example. Fermi Problems One way of helping students develop estimation skills is to ask them to solve Fermi Problems. An important aspect of estimation is making sure students have developed a variety of benchmarks in all areas of measurement. their ownbenchmarks. and communication. lengths. Here are some examples: o o o o o How many leaves are on the two trees standing outside the school? How many gallons of water does our class drink every day? How many pencils are there in our school? What is the average length? How much money could we save by turning the lights off when we leave this room? Are Spanish words longer than English words? Do they use more vowels? To solve problems such as these successfully. they require students to make rough calculations based on a reasonable set of assumptions. A simple activity is to time the length of a minute. and time to develop personal benchmarks that they can apply to future estimations. students need to have good computation skills. Assumptions Assumptions are the building blocks of an estimate. you make assumptions about the number of guests who actually will come (which may be different from the number that you invite) and the amount of punch that each will drink. Benchmarks A benchmark is a point of reference for making estimations and is developed through past experiences. To estimate how much punch you need for your party.") Practice estimating using Making an assumption is risky because you could be wrong.. they can estimate the length of a car to be about 10 feet.Estimation is not a skill that you can teach on a given morning. three Mississippi. two Mississippi. and ask students to raise their hands when they think a minute has passed. the estimate itself is simply a matter of calculation. weights. Experienced teachers are always on the lookout for problems that allow students to apply their skills in mathematics. 3. volume.

What calculations can we make? What mathematical operations can we use? 6. possibly in the form of a bar graph. working individually or in groups. and challenge. Then suggest that the true answer is probably somewhere between the highest and the lowest estimates. For example. For Step 2. in estimating how many people speak English as a primary language. which may lead them to change their estimates. inches. give students a simple Fermi problem. an estimate would not be 301. "If we lined up all of our shoes in a row. meters. and be sure that they understand all types of estimation. What are the appropriate units of measure? 3. Range of Acceptable Values It is often useful to consider a range of values for a particular estimate. Ask the "outliers" (groups whose estimates are far above or below the average) to explain their assumptions. Remind students of the benchmarks they know from past experiences. To introduce a class to making estimates. it is important to create an environment in which it is safe to make. and have each group estimate the area of the classroom.025. categorize the examples to show the wide use of estimation in real-world situations. Here are some questions to get them thinking. how long would the row of shoes be?" As students think about the problem. They should decide if their row consists of shoes lined up end to end.getting it right. One way to introduce the idea of a range of possible values is to have students. How can we check our estimate to see if it makes sense? For Step 1. Therefore. or side by side. 5. They might make eyeball estimates of the length of their hair or the weight of objects in the classroom. or a meter is about the length of a baseball bat. Then. . a foot is the length of a ruler or about the length of a standard piece of notebook paper. Teaching Estimation Every Day Students should understand that estimation is a skill that is used every day in many different situations and is not only a topic in math class. You may want to start by having students brainstorm situations in which they have made estimates. such as between 250 and 400 million people. and write the estimates on the board. 1. 4. An acceptable estimate may be a range.601 people. Define the problem. end to end. such as. What do we need to know to arrive at an estimate? 4. Ask students to describe how they make estimates. ask them to record their ideas. For example. Students may know that an inch is about the length of the top section of their thumb. For example. Poll the groups. come up with estimates for the same problem. students might use estimates to predict the amount of money they need to go to the mall for a day or how long their homework will take them on a given night. divide the class into groups. What assumptions can we make? 5. be sure students understand that they are trying to estimate the length of the row of shoes. Students can then measure the area of the classroom and compare their estimates to the actual measurement. or centimeters. have students choose the unit they will use: yards. What sort of answer are we looking for? What would be an example of a solution? 2. assumptions. This will allow you to determine what assistance they may need in developing appropriate estimates. feet. Explain to students the different types of estimates and when each would be used. not how many shoes there would be.

com/prodev/estimation/48941.fen.html#ixzz1ZKUTREu8 Page 3 of 3 How Can You Stretch Students' Thinking? Here are some ways of getting students to stretch their estimation skills: • • Give students increasingly difficult problems. Teach students how to challenge one another's assumptions in a respectful way and how to defend and justify their own estimates to one another. Have students clearly document their estimations by listing and justifying all of their assumptions. and economics to quantify amounts when accurate numbers are not needed. Writing . and ask them to share their processes with one another.In Step 3. the class can measure the actual length of all the lined-up shoes.teachervision. history. and showing all calculations. Students can analyze the statistics or assumptions that were made to arrive at the estimate and then discuss questions that arise about their estimates. research. Advanced computer science students can be challenged to build simulation models. on Web sites. Have students compare the actual length to their estimates. Students can measure the length or width of five shoes and find the average. or in textbooks. Encourage students to try a variety of strategies and apply them to new situations. If students are working in groups. describing their process. discuss the range of reasonable estimates based on the assumptions students made. Have students try alternate methods of estimating. During Step 5. For Step 4. students should calculate the length of the row by multiplying the number of shoes by the shoe length or width they arrived at in Step 4 by using their assumptions. Read more on TeacherVision:http://www. Encourage students to estimate a range of solutions by exploring what happens when they change their assumptions within reasonable bounds. students need to find out how many shoes will be in the row and how the length of each shoe will be calculated. or measure a few shoes and take the most frequently occurring measurement. The best problems are ones that are slightly beyond their comfort zone. Once all students have estimates that are within the acceptable range of values. Ask them to make new assumptions if their estimates are outside of that range. Reading/English Students can read about estimations in news articles. Help students use programmable calculators or spreadsheets to build their own estimation tools. Younger students can repeatedly add the length of shoes to reach an estimate. guide students to make assumptions about how wide or long the shoes are and how many shoes will be in the row. • • • When Can You Use It? There are many opportunities to use estimation in science.

fen. Science Have students make estimations before and during experiments.teachervision. Lesson Plans Estimating Angles. height. and time. Area. and Length This lesson plan is for students in middle school. assumptions. They can estimate the mass. Read more on TeacherVision:http://www. and the like were determined. Provide students with daily or weekly estimation problems and make them use new operations or estimation strategies. such as weight. careers. length.html#ixzz1ZKUcJg2m . height. geography. Discuss the sampling. Students can describe the process they used to estimate in a given scenario. Math Have students estimate using a variety ofmeasures. Have students explain the strategies. and benchmarks they used to arrive at their estimate. Social Studies Discuss the many ways estimates are used insocial studies. Discuss how statistics for population. or volume of various objects and then find the actual values and compare them.Have students explain their estimations in writing. Students estimate angles and surface area and perform computational estimation. language. or other methods that were used to determine the estimates.