Applied Math: Seasonal Workers for Amazon.com

There’s math everywhere — especially in the news. Here’s a good example:

Yesterday, I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about seasonal workers at Amazon.com. Apparently, Amazon makes nearly 40% of its annual revenue during the fourth quarter — presumably fueled by Christmas.

In the excerpt below, the paragraph boxed in red intrigued me, from a middle school math perspective:

So if Amazon brings in $34 billion each year, that means it brings in $13.6 billion in the fourth quarter. That’s a simple enough math problem to get a middle school student to figure out. And if the warehouse in Phoenix quadrupled its staff to get to 1,200 people, then how many people usually work there? About 300.

So that’s a good review of percents and fractions.

But now let’s bring math to life. How big is $34 billion in revenue? Is that a lot or a little?

Well, let’s look up the largest companies in the world by revenue:

Looks like these top companies are pulling in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of revenue. Students could analyze this chart and learn some things about how much energy is being used.

This chart only lists the top 205, but it’s safe to assume Amazon.com is in the top 300 if its revenue is $34 billion.

Now go back to the article about Amazon.com — it’s about seasonal workers. In North Carolina, there’s a large migrant farm worker population. We could learn about their conditions and compare that to the conditions we read about.

And if we wanted to broaden our global perspective (which we would constantly be striving to do at Triangle Learning Community) about the issue of migrant workers, we could learn about migrant workers in China, which has experienced the largest voluntary migration in human history in the past 20 years.

How did I find that excerpt from a book?

I ran this search on Google:

And saw that this result (boxed in green) looked promising because of the words in the red rectangle:

These are the sorts of real-world skills students need to learn — how to research by crafting appropriate search terms; how to sift through massive amounts of information — and this is the sort of math-in-context that students should be doing so that they can become familiar with the difference between millions (of migrant workers in China) and billions (of dollars in revenue).

And then, on the ethics side, students should be thinking about what it means when 75-year old couples are seasonal migrant workers in warehouses.

This sort of discussion would be an interesting way to learn about math and about the world around us at the same time. We’d do this sort of applied math every morning at Triangle Learning Community (opening in August 2013).

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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