How Much is a Million?

This lesson focuses students on the concept of 1,000,000. It allows students to see first hand the sheer size of 1 million while at the same time providing them with an introduction to sampling and its use in mathematics. Students will use grains of rice and a balance to figure out the approximate volume and weight of 1,000,000 grains of rice. This activity uses rice to develop thinking skills about how much a million truly is. I have done a similar activity using small paper clips.

Standards & Objectives

Learning objectives: 

Learning Objectives:

By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Find the weight of rice needed to make up 1,000,000 grains of rice.
  • Learn how to extrapolate from a smaller group of data to a larger conclusion.
  • Solve proportions.
Essential and guiding questions: 

Questions for Students:

  • About how many pounds (kilograms) of rice does it take to make 1 million grains of rice? Explain how you got your answer?
  • How exact is your answer? Explain your reasoning.
  • Explain and show what you could do to make your answer more precise.
  • Explain how you could use a sampling technique to estimate the number of people who are watching a football game.

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 


  • Environmental Science: Parts per million (ppm) is a common unit of measurement for pollutants. The concept of ppm can be difficult for students to visualize. The Environmental Protection Agency lists acceptable levels of different pollutants. One such pollutant is mercury. The EPA states that 1 ppm of mercury is an acceptable level. To demonstrate this to students, take 1 grain of rice from a pile of 1 million grains. Use a marker and color this grain black and then put the grain back into the bucket. This is truly 1 ppm. Students can take turns looking to see if they can find the 1 dark colored grain of rice. Then place the bucket of rice on a table and allow students to search during off times during the day.
  • Social Science: How much does something cost? How much is our school district's annual budget? If each grain of rice was a dollar, how many pounds of rice would it take to equal that amount? How many pounds of rice will be “spent” in a year?
  • Consider an making an example out of the national debt. How much is the debt? How fast is it growing?

Helpful Hints


  • Small cups (1 per group of 2 or 3 students)
  • 1 larger cup or glass jar
  • Rice
  • Poster Paper (optional)
  • Balance – either a beam balance or a inexpensive postal scale
  • Calculator (optional)