Math IS Real Life: May 2017 Edition – canal locks

It’s the first Wednesday of May which means it’s time for our monthly linky – Math IS Real Life!! If you want to see how the linky works, or just want other real world math ideas, check out our Pinterest Board of all the posts so that you can look back and find some great ideas and REAL pictures to use in your classroom!

If you are linking up, please include the below picture to link back to this blog post


 A monthly REAL WORLD math blog link-up hosted by MissMathDork,


Recently the afternoons have been beautiful and I’ve been trying to go for more walks.  My brother-in-law, John, recently introduced me to a great walking path, the C&O Canal.  I wasn’t new to the Canal as a place, as I had driven past  it / over it many times passing into Maryland from West Virginia, but I had never taken the time to stop by and walk the paths.  One day while walking, we happened upon this house right next to a canal lock.  I was instantly intrigued.

It seems as though this house was, many, many years ago, occupied by the C&O canal locktender.  The locktender was in charge of opening and close the canal locks to let all boats through regardless of what time of day/night they arrived.  The house was a mere 10 to 15 feet set back from the canal.

This is the view from the front of the house.  You can see the water at the bank height to the left of the lock, and you can see to the right now the water must be much lower as it is not in the picture.

Here’s a closer up view of the higher water on the left and the lower water on the right.  It’s close to a 10 foot drop off.

And here is the view of the other end of the lock.

This lock is no longer in use, but the high end remains closed, and the low end remains open.

Recently, I was in San Antonio for the annual NCTM conference (what a beautiful place!) and my colleague and I decided to take a taxi ride on the Riverwalk.  What I didn’t know when I jumped on the taxi ride was that I was going to get to experience being in a canal lock on the ride.  While my camera didn’t take the best of pictures at night, I do want to share them with you.  I also took a video, but it scrambled when I tried to transfer it to my computer (huge sad face!!).

The above picture was at the top of the lock.  Once we arrived, the driver electronically signaled the lock.  The lower lock door closed and the water filled to the height of our boat.  Once the water filled, the upper lock door opened and we moved in.  Once inside the lock, the upper door closed, and the water drained at a relatively slow, but still pretty steady pace.  Two minutes later I took the second picture.  You can see the water line towards the left of the picture near the taxi drivers head.

I was absolutely mesmerized by this entire process.  The speed of the water coming in, and yet not at a scary pace.  The time that it took to fill and drain the lock.  How much water was pumped in?  At what pace? Was this water recycled? stored?  So many math questions were swarming through my head.

Can you imagine turning this into a volume problem in a classroom?  Such amazing technology that was created so long ago.

I did some research on how the locks work and the mathematics behind them.  Instead of writing it all out for you, I am going to share two of the websites that I used to understand the process more.  One of the sites has a built-in STEM lesson plan that can be used with students.  The other, has a delightful British gentleman (with a lovely accent!) who has created a video show a lock in use and walks through the entire mathematics of how the canal lock works.

You can find the lesson plan HERE and the video HERE


  Don’t forget to check out the other MIRL posts below!  Check back over the next few days – more will be added!!

Categories: #mirl, geometry and measurement, math is real life, mathematical reasoning, and patterns, functions and algebra.

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