Scientific Notation – an Introduction

In a previous post I asked readers to identify a math topic that they wanted help unpacking. Scientific Notation was cited. Here is my approach to unpacking this topic.

My first step in presenting a new topic is meaning making. For scientific notation, the underlying idea is NOTATION – “the act, process, method, or an instance of representing by a system or set of marks, signs, figures, or characters.” We can represent numbers in different ways, one of which is scientific notation. This is useful to represent very large or very small numbers (as happens in science). It is useful because in lieu of writing out a bunch digits, the power of 10 can be used as a shortcut. In the image above you see that 4.5 x 104 has two parts, the decimal and the 10s.

Before I get into these big or small numbers, I address the concept of notation because that word is in the topic. To introduce a concept, I typically start with a related topic that is relevant for students. In this case it is money. To mirror the two parts of scientific notation, I list the bills and how many of each. In the left image below, I show both parts and pair combinations that are the same value (a single $10 bill and ten $1 bills). I then show how I can convert a single $10 bill by dividing by 10 and then multiplying the number of bills by 10 (middle image). This previews the steps used in scientific notation. Then (right image) I show the same approach for dollars and cents (which previews decimals). Note: to help flesh out the dollars and cents I would first use the linked Jamboard.

The image below left keeps the concept of money, but the images are faded. The students are still working with money and how many but now with numbers only. The middle image introduces decimals, but the same steps are used (divide by 10 and multiply by 10).

Finally, the matched pairs shown in the previous handout pages (images above) are presented with an explanation of the parts of scientific notation (below left). I explain the idea of scientific notation as a special way to write numbers, list the two parts, and then I show examples by circling the ones in each pair (bottom left) that fit the criteria. Then they identify numbers that are written in scientific notation (below right).

Following this introduction lesson, I would explain the applications (linked above) and go into more detail on how to rewrite the number in scientific notation.

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