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Wild About Utah: Antler math and memories

Two kids play with an antler. One holds it over the other as though it's attached to his head.

Seven- and eight-year-olds with tape measures in their hands eagerly grasp at hard, smooth yet knobby, tined objects. These students are my second-graders at USU’s Edith Bowen Laboratory School, and they are working on a measurement, addition and estimation math lesson in small groups.

This lesson isn’t a normal math lesson where students follow along in a textbook and complete standardized problem. Instead, this lesson centers around a natural artifact from the Utah wild. The students are measuring and exploring deer and elk antlers.

Growing up, I was surrounded by rural friends and family. Much of their livelihoods and lifestyles revolved around the outdoors, and it was commonplace to enter their homes or ranches to see spindly antlers laying on mantles, mounted above doors or carefully placed in gardens to add a western feel.

Over the years, I made my own personal connection to antlers, such as when I found one when I was chucker partridge hunting up Blacksmith Fork Canyon with my trusty Springer Spaniel, Wyatt (who is no longer here to share such adventures). Each antler is a memory, each one makes me reminisce on an outdoor adventure that will only live on as a thought.

As a teacher, I am always pondering ways to make learning more relatable to students, and one day realized the method employed by professionals to score antlers would be a meaningful way for my students to practice measurement! So, I loaded up the truck with my collection of outdoor memories, and brought them to school.

I launched the activity and each and every eye lit up at the sight of an antler. We hadn’t even begun the activity yet and my students started sharing their own memories of times with their family that related to antlers: a rafting excursion on the Green River, an elk hunting trip with their dad and big brother, or even a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park where they saw lots of bull elk. These stories were powerful to the students, and powerful to me.

A child holds a measuring tape up to an antler.
Joey Kozlowski

We continued with the measurement activity and each student group collaborated to measure the tines and three circumferences of each antler. Then, they would struggle and succeed to add all those sub-measurements together to get a total score for that antler, which we collected as data. Groups would rotate to a new, unique antler and repeat this process, collecting student-generated data which we compiled.

By the end, our data consisted of multiple scores for each antler, as various groups had scored each one. We analyzed the data, looked at discrepancies in scores, posed and solved antler math problems, and even ended the activity by showing a new antler that hadn’t been scored. All the students made a visual estimation of the total score for the new antler; we then gave the antler to the student who made the closest estimation.

In the end, this activity brought together what I value in education. It connected to the place and culture in which my students live, was directly focused on academic content needed by my students, and elicited engagement and personal stories from my students.

In a perfect world, all my lessons would be as powerful and relatable to students as this one was. In fact, right before leaving for Spring Break one of my students declared, “We’re going to stay at an elk ranch in Southern Utah so I can try to see some antlers!”

On normal years, your family is welcome to collect antlers year-round, only needing a free gathering certificate between Feb. 1-April 15. However this year due to the harsh winter, Division of Wildlife Resources put a ban on the activity until May 1.

Joseph Kozlowski PhD, is a teacher and researcher at Edith Bowen Laboratory School. He is passionate about incorporating innovative mathematics and computer science education strategies into his classroom, and using those experiences to guide his research work. Additionally, he draws from his rural upbringing in Wyoming to inform his implementation of experiential and outdoor education. He is humbled and honored to be a contributor to UPR's Wild About Utah!