In this lesson, we explore some fascinating stories from the news and history (and the future) about number encodings in computers. These stories should serve to illuminate how the kinds of decisions we have been making about number encodings are the same kinds of things that real scientists in the world have to worry about, sometimes with disastrous consequences. While this lesson has the possibility of running long, it is meant only as a short excursion into real-world application and should be limited to one class period.


Students will be able to:


Determining the number of bits that will be used in each binary number can have a profound impact on computing systems we rely upon. Many older operating systems and protocols for encoding time made use of 32-bit numbers. As computational power and time have both progressed, standards have migrated to larger binary numbers, usually 64-bit, in order to accommodate changing demands of these systems. Moving all members of the computing community over to these new standards can take some time, however, as many users continue to expect to receive and send information using the older 32-bit protocol.


Getting Started

Students will spend the majority of today's lesson independently researching a topic related to real-world number systems. You will see today as part of a broader investigation into the impacts different number systems have upon the way we represent and reason about numbers.

Present the following prompt to students as a short lecture before beginning this lesson's activity.


If possible, place students in groups of 2 to 4 people to complete the initial research. Distribute the "Encoding Numbers in the Real World Activity Guide" resource, one copy per student. Assign or have groups choose one of the articles found below in the "Resource Articles" section.


Give students 15 to 20 minutes to conduct their initial research in groups and complete the top portion of their Activity Guide. Encourage students to stay focused on the core ideas of their topic before moving on to understanding more detailed or technical aspects of the topic.

Pro Tip

Provide students a hard time limit when conducting research at the beginning of class and consider projecting a countdown timer. Use this constraint to encourage students to divide up their work and focus their attention on the overall topic, rather than specific technical details.

Resource Articles

Below is a set of articles that address different numbering systems and their uses. Feel free to add additional sources or select multiple sources when assigning topics.


After researching, have students find three classmates who researched a different article and exchange the information they learned. They should record the key points from each topic in the space provided at the bottom of their Activity Guides.

Pro Tip

During the Jigsaw, consider providing students with 5- to 8-minute periods during which they can exchange information with a classmate. As before, their job is to cover the key points and make connections to their study of binary numbers.

Wrap Up

Conclude the lesson with a sense-making discussion summarizing the broad themes running through this activity. The key points are that the binary number system, like any number system, has benefits while also imposing limits upon how we represent information. Give particular focus to at least one topic in which selecting a certain width binary number created unforeseen challenges later on. Some conversation starters are listed below.


  1. Reflection: Choose one of the topics you most enjoyed learning about today. Describe what new information you learned and how it relates to the way we create and use number systems.

Extended Learning

Ask students to conduct further research into a topic they found compelling. Use this activity to develop skills students will need to employ for the Explore Performance Task.

Standards Alignment