The assignment was one that middle school students could really get into. It hardly seemed like math. All that each student had to do was to select the new car of her dreams and find out how much it would cost to drive it off the showroom floor. Dad or Mom probably didn't mind visiting the showroom. Looking isn't so bad when there is no pressure to buy.

Students visited the dealerships, collected the slick brochures and copied all the information from the stickers in the windows of their favorite cars. The salesmen were even very willing to give information that the assignment required about sales tax and license fees.The information made great posters for the math room at school. The place looked like an advertising agency with slick posters all over the walls, except that the posters included exact information about the price of each car.

Now it was time to start the math lesson. The teacher wondered aloud how much the average car costs. The students figured it out. What about the average gas mileage on these cars? They figured it out together. This question also led to the next big question: How much would it cost to drive the car?

Since the car isn't yours to drive until it is paid for, there were more facts to learn. A representative of the local credit union came to the class to explain how much a loan would cost. He showed the class how to calculate interest. The students soon discovered that when the car dealer told them they could drive a car for only so much a month, they were being told something very different than the price of the car.

Since a car can't be put on the road without insurance, a local insurance agent was invited to class to explain what insurance was and how much it would cost. It took a while for him to calculate rates for each imaginary driver's individual car because with the new information they had learned, these students had to decide exactly what coverage was appropriate for each individual situation.

An auto mechanic was the next class visitor. He told the kids what expenses to plan on each year for routine maintenance. He also talked to them about the costs of some major repairs and told them how long different tires would last.

It was now time for the tough part. Students were to figure out how much it would cost each year to drive the dream car. They had to include the cost of the car, maintenance, gas, oil, insurance, interest on the car loan and many other variables.

Students then made what they call real stickers to add to the posters. The real sticker advertised the real price for each year in the dream car.

In completing the project, students learned how to calculate averages, percentages, interest rates and interest, gas mileage and cost per mile. These useful math skills were taught using a real experience. The amazing part of the experience is that the students didn't see it as an extended story problem.

There was enough interest in the exercise after it was over that students asked the teacher if they could do the same thing with a house. How much does it cost for a family to live in a house for a year? In this case, the students decided to collect the information and try to describe the typical house.

The students had to bring different pieces of information to class each day, and guests were invited to class to talk about utility rates, mortgages, insurance, grocery shopping and other expenses of managing a household.

The point is that this was a math class. The second point is that students were interested in what they were learning. The clincher is that math skills seemed more important to the students who saw that they would need to use these new skills.

Now I wonder how much it would cost me to tour Europe. The middle school kids could probably help me figure it out.