Figuring out how to teach math virtually has been the steepest of learning curves. There is so much content to be covered. I’ve also had to navigate keeping my students engaged, incorporating virtual manipulatives, and bringing in real-world connections. Using programs like STEMscopes virtual math manipulatives is just one of the ways I’ve made some small switches to teaching math in my virtual classroom. This way, my students can continue to explore real-world applications. Check out some of the free lesson samples I use in my classroom.


Photos or It Didn’t Happen

Even before digital learning, I’m that teacher who stops to take photos of store signs. When I see a sign for 10 candy bars for $12, my first thought is, “How can I use this in my math class?” Every few aisles is another opportunity for real-world math. “Oooh! They have individual stickers on sale for $0.50 each, BUT 2 larger sheets of stickers are $4.”

My students love talking about situations they can relate to. Now that I’m teaching online, images really capture student attention in a way that sharing a word problem does not.

Take a look at this realistic-looking ad from a STEMscopes Math exploration activity for comparing numbers to 1,000. Of course, my students are going to notice and be drawn in by all those little details that make the situation authentic.

image of real world looking ad for an ipad on sale

Discussing actual products brings energy and interest not found with just words on a page.

Ask Questions with More Than One Answer

What happens with most word problems is you get to the answer, and that’s it. Instead, give students something else to consider with problems that have more than one answer.

Sites like Would You Rather Math have great open-ended prompts that get student conversations going.

two images of Reese's peanut butter eggs for sale with the title Would You Rather buy


In this example, you get figure out which is the better deal for 18 eggs: 2 6-packs for $8.00 or Buy 2 packs get 1 pack free for $0.97. Backing up their thinking here becomes more important.

These types of questions are easy to share on your screen and, again, the images are attention-grabbing. Give students a minute to do some calculations. Then, ask them to share their answer by chat, dry erase board, or hand signals. I like to mix it up.

Call on a few students to share their thinking with the class. Make sure to focus on their reasoning for why their choice is best.

Create a Virtual Math Manipulative Library

Back in the day (aka 2019), I always had bins of manipulatives to use in my lessons. Then, when I first switched to virtual, I missed being able to give students something to hold in their hands to model real-world situations like counting coins. I tried drawing and explaining and then over-explaining. It wasn’t the same.

In April, I had an idea: I pulled together a bunch of small images of different coins, counters, and base ten blocks into what I started calling a math manipulative library. All these images now sit in a folder on my desktop and, when I need them, I pull the manipulatives onto a Google slide or virtual whiteboard like BitPaper.

As for easy-to-use virtual manipulatives, I really loved STEMscopes math’s interactive clock because of all the ways it can be manipulated and set up depending on my lesson objectives. In this case, the virtual manipulative does more than what my physical manipulatives could ever do!

image of clock with blue minute hand and red hour hand

Keep It Simple and Use What’s Out There Already

Repeat after me: “I don’t need to come up with increasingly more elaborate and unique lessons.”

So far, my suggestions have been about simple images—no video montages or Tic Tok dances necessary.

You don’t even have to come up with real-world situations and images yourself. STEMscopes Math, which bases their units on the 5E Lesson Model, has already developed the situations and sorted out the images for you, and they give you all the virtual manipulatives you might need.

Take this Project-Based Task where students have to help arrange chairs for their teachers. The problem is visual, there is more than one right answer, and it’s a real-world situation students can relate to.

Online math problem about arranging chairs in a room to teach arrays real world math

Virtual math manipulatives are tools to help students explore and represent math concepts. When used creatively, they create meaningful learning experiences for students regardless of where the learning takes place.


4 Ways To Make Real-World Exploration Happen in Your Virtual Math Classroom