Pan Balance and Algebra

  • Pan Balance and Algebra

    Pamela Olmstead

    Pamela Olmstead has been a middle school math and science teacher for 15 years at Chehalis Middle School (Chehalis, WA). One lesson that she has referred to all year long is Balancing Shapes, which uses the online applet Pan Balance-Shapes. Before she begins teaching students about equations or algebra, she takes them to the lab and asks them to use the shapes and the teeter-totter to figure out how to make both sides of an equation equal. Then she lets kids explore until they begin to show comprehension. Olmstead says that this helps "students who are intimidated by math and numbers have fun. They can see that they are successful with the shapes." Olmstead also says that the activity is effective because it gives "immediate feedback, and I can see what they have stored. When we eventually introduce equations, my kids really understand what they are doing and why."

    In order to supplement this activity, Olmstead uses the same concept in the classroom by having students stand up and portray different numbers. There is also a student variable and a student equal sign. By having students move around, one-step equations are easily solved. Furthermore, while doing this, Olmstead has the students show their work as they solve the equation (moving from concrete to abstract). Even when introducing negative numbers in equations, students are able to be successful because they understand the concept of the equal sign. 

    To see more lesson plans using this applet, visit:

    • Finding the Balance (Pre-K-2)
    • Block Pounds (Pre-K-2)
    • Balancing Discoveries (Pre-K-2)
    • Balancing (Pre-K-2)
    • Balancing Shapes (6-8)