It was a confusing sight.

Last year, Maggie Fioccoprile stepped off her bus at Wilson K-8 School to behold a mess of eighth graders toting full-size doghouses with them to class.

This year, the scenario got more bizarre - the doghouses, it turned out, were for algebra.

Now an eighth grader, Fioccoprile just finished building her own canine abode. In the process, she's committed to memory some basic mathematical concepts.

"When I hear 'proportions,' I'll probably think 'Oh yeah, like back in Ms. Elliott's class when we did the doghouse project,'" she said.

Recently, Fioccoprile and her classmates, and a handful of geometry students, presented more than 40 doghouses to Pima County Animal Care Center.

The students received substantial extra credit for the donations - a free homework pass, a 100 on a quiz and extra points on a test - but Chantelle Elliott attributes their productivity to more than just point greediness.

"New students come into my class and want to know which quarter we do the doghouse project," she said.

The doghouse project, now in its fifth year at Wilson, began eight years ago in Allen, Texas, where Elliott was teaching at the time.

She'd run across a stimulating math challenge that required students to design scaled-down doghouse models and figure out how much it would cost to produce them.

"Ms. Brittany Yorkshire" was the fictitious challenger - the head of Canine Castle Corporation, a made-up company intent on getting rich from doghouses.

The students were architects, charged with pondering questions of design:

Which is more necessary - summer ventilation or winter insulation? Are custom embellishments good for business, or are they money drains? Should doghouses be one-size-fits-all?

The students then applied their computational skills to designing blueprints, and then models.

"When you calculate the doghouse cost, you're finding the surface area of the plywood," Elliott said. "You're finding roof slopes, and using the Pythagorean theorem to find dimensions when dealing with triangles."

Elliott and her teacher friends in Texas loved the Canine Castle Corporation challenge, but they fantasized about making it grander.

"We were always kind of doing crazy things," Elliott said. "We wanted to get the kids involved."

One suggested actually making the doghouses.

"We thought, 'What are we going to do with all of these dog houses? Donate them? But who would want this many doghouses?' So we called a shelter," Elliot said.

When Elliott began teaching at Wilson three years later, she brought along her doghouse idea.

In the past four years, Pima County Animal Care Center has raised an estimated $3,000 from sale of the abodes, said Michele Romero, the center's enforcement support supervisor.

This year's doghouses are at the center, where they are being sold for $40 to $80. Proceeds will partially fulfill a wish list that includes new cages for the cat room and new beds for dogs, and a new paint job in the kennel.

In five years, the students have donated 224 houses, Romero said. A few went to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and one went to an animal-loving family that lost a house to a fire.

Elliott's students have benefited by seeing real-world applications of the mathematical symbols between the covers of their textbooks.

"I've had several students come back and say there are lots of things they don't remember, but they remember the dog houses," Elliott said. "It just sticks out in their mind as something that's relevant."

Phil Yancey, an eighth-grade algebra student, built a basic, no-nonsense doghouse with a friend.

"It's like putting together a puzzle," he said. "You use tons and tons of math."

He said his doghouse, which took about seven hours to build, went together almost flawlessly with the help of some algebra formulas.

"I learned you have to be really precise," he said. "You have to be dead on the mark."

Fioccoprile, who created a brown, shingled doghouse, said she appreciates the way the project shows algebra's relevance.

"When everybody thinks of math, they think it's all textbook work," Fioccoprile said. "When you move on, you forget what you've already learned unless it's something you know you're going to need. Until now, I didn't think I was ever going to use anything like that."

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