Party games & geometry definitions

Today's geometry class started with a new random arrangement of student seats. It never fails to amaze me how the dynamics of the whole room change with a shuffle of student locations.

The lesson today was the first of our quadrilateral unit. Normally after tests, I don't tend to have homework assignments, but I decided to make an exception with a simple assignment:

Create a single Geogebra file in which you construct and label all of the quadrilaterals given in the textbook: parallelogram, rhombus, square, kite, rectangle, trapezoid, and isosceles trapezoid.

This appealed to me because I really dislike lessons in which we go through definitions slowly as a group. I also knew that giving the students some independence in reviewing or learning the definitions of these quadrilaterals was a good thing. Sometimes they are a bit to reliant on me to give them all the information they need. For this assignment, students would need to understand the definitions of quadrilaterals in order to construct them, and that was a good enough for walking into class today.

The warm-up activity involved looking at unlabeled diagrams of quadrilaterals, naming them, and writing any characteristics they noticed about them from the diagrams:

Some had trouble with the term 'characteristics', but a peek down at the chart just below on the paper helped them figure it out:

Based on what they knew from the definitions before class, I had them complete this chart while talking to their new partner. There was lots of good conversation and careful use of language for each listed characteristic.

This led to the next thing that often serves as an important (though often boring) exercise: new vocabulary. I used one of my favorite activities that gets students focused on little details - each student received one of the following four charts. The chart is originally from p. 380 of the AMSCO Geometry textbook, and was digitally ruined using GIMP.

The students had a good time filling in the missing information and conferring with each other to make sure they had it all. We then came up with some examples of consecutive vertices, angles, diagonals, and opposite sides.


From their work with the chart and using the new vocabulary whenever possible, we then did the following:

What information would you need in order to prove that a quadrilateral is... (use as much of the new vocabulary as possible!)

  • a square?

  • a rhombus?

  • a parallelogram?

  • a rectangle?

  • a trapezoid? (an isosceles trapezoid?)

  • a kite?

I was really pleased with how they did with this exercise - they really seemed to be interacting with the definitions and vocabulary well.

Finally, we arrived at the part that was the most fun. You know that annoying ice-breaker you sometimes are forced to do at professional development sessions where you wear something on your head and have to get the other attendees to tell you who you are?

I hate that activity. That usually means it's perfect for my students:

Here are the quadrilaterals:
Quadrilaterals - Who-Am-I activity

The students were all smiles during the ten minutes or so we spent going through it - yes, I had one too! They were using the vocabulary we had developed during the day and were pretty creative in getting each other to guess the dog names as well.

In the end, I feel pretty good about how today's set of activities went. The engagement level was pretty high and everyone did a good job of interacting with the definitions in a way that will hopefully lead to understanding as we start proving their properties in coming classes.

Turning random facts into logistics curves - ODE per day series continued.

I previously wrote about making sure that every class during our unit on differential equations starts with some differential equation they can see or feel in a concrete way.

During the last class, we investigated a draining tank using the video posted by Dan Meyer at his blog.

Today we did something different. I told them that I was doing an experiment with a simple task. They all needed to find the answers to some  questions as quickly as possible:

When they found the answers, I wanted them to quickly throw a hand in the air to let me know. I told them to be honest - they didn't know what I was doing with the information yet, so there really wasn't a chance to skew it.

I then showed them the slide with the questions:

I also simultaneously started the following Python program. (UPDATE: Code is posted here.) This let me easily record any time a student raised his/her hand.

I then pasted the data directly into a Geogebra spreadsheet and graphed the data...

...and then fit a logistics curve to the data:

They had seen and heard the concept of learning/performance curves before, but it was really great to be able to develop one on the spot with the class. I was impressed with how good the data turned out. It was then neat to be able to show the differential equation that describes this type of phenomenon and solve it to get this type of function.

As is probably obvious, I only have ten students in this group. It would be really cool to try something like this with a bigger group and see if the data fits as nicely.

Building meaning for momentum from discussions, definitions, and data.

Today we started our next unit in physics with a 'next time question' from Paul Hewitt:

My reason for giving this was specifically because of the fact that we haven't learned anything about it. I wanted the students to speak purely from their intuition. I asked them the following:

We aren't quite ready to answer this by calculation, but I do want you to make a guess.

Will they move together faster than, slower than, or with the same speed as the ball?

Would your answer change if the ball bounced off Jocko instead of him catching it?

Student responses included:

  • We need to know if he bends backwards when he catches it, because that will affect it.
  • No matter how he does catch it, he will move slower. The larger mass will result in a smaller acceleration.
  • The clown has a non-conservative force, so the kinetic energy will decrease.

Interesting responses. We talked a bit about collisions and throws and catches of objects and what they 'felt' doing this with different objects. I introduced the idea that it might be nice to have a physics quantity that contains the direction and rate information of velocity, as well as the mass.  I told them that physicists did, in fact, have such a quantity called momentum. They responded with a few non-physics related ways they had heard the term and described what it meant.

To figure things out about how momentum relates to collisions, I then had them analyze the three air track collision videos from the Doane Physics video library using Tracker. Their tasks were as follows:

  • Find the momentum of each cart before and after the collision for the video you are assigned. Calibration information is contained in the first frame of each video.
  • Find the total momentum of the system before and after the collision.
  • Find the total kinetic energy of the system before and after the collision.
  • What is thechange of the momentum of the system during the collision?
  • What is the change of the kinetic energy of the system during the collision?
  • Talk to your classmates and compare your answers for the three different videos.

It was pretty cool to see them jump in with Tracker and know how to analyze things without too much trouble. Fairly soon afterwards, we had some initial velocities and final velocities, and changes in momentum to compare.

I was, of course, leading them toward something with the change calculations.
We calculated the changes in momentum, which were non-zero. Were the magnitudes significant? A student suggested looking at the percent change compared to the initial momentum. For the first two videos, the loss was less than 1%, though for the third it was around 20%.
A student proposed the possibility that the change should be zero if no momentum is lost during the transfer. Comments were made about how that made sense in the context of our previous unit on energy - things feeling right when all of a quantity can be accounted for.
I then did a little pushing (since we were almost out of time) about what this might mean about total initial momentum and total final momentum.  I also gave them definitions for elastic and inelastic collisions. I then assigned them a couple simple questions that I wanted them to figure out if we can say that the change in total momentum before and after is zero:
Then it was time for Calculus.
I don't usually like giving students information. I don't like giving it away without some sense of where it comes from. I also like when students can discover quantities without equation definitions. Sometimes though, the simplicity of an idea like momentum and its power can come from taking the calculation itself as a tool that can be used to analyze a situation.
In previous classes, I have given the definition, shown situations in which momentum is conserved, and then asked students to use this idea of momentum conservation with their math skills to find unknown quantities. I really liked this alternate approach today of using momentum itself to analyze a situation and then have the idea of conservation come out of discussion. I think its potential for 'stickiness' in the minds of students is much greater this way.

Experiencing an ODE per day

I don't like how applications of math are presented as a "special topic" once the theoretical has been understood. There are, admittedly, some aspects of concepts that are more thoroughly understood with background knowledge. I subscribe to an approach that bounces between applied and theoretical whenever possible.

This especially applies to differential equations. I tell my calculus students the story of my time at college when I took a course in differential equations. I spent a lot of time trying to understand how the processes of solving differential equations actually worked. It was the same way I studied multi-variable calculus the semester before, lectures for which I found fairly intuitive. The lectures for differential equations, on the other hand, were extremely technical and involved processes that were not clearly motivated by, well, anything from my professor.

This was also a time when my tolerance for pure mathematics was fairly low. As an engineering student, I needed to have an application nearby in order to push through the theoretical, otherwise my internal 'what's the point' light would start flashing and I would tune out. There was very little of this in the lectures, but I pushed for understanding in my completion of problem sets and studying for the first exam.

My grade on the first exam was a 73. I was shocked. I also decided to give in to the suggestions of the sophomore students that had taken it before, who said just to memorize it all. I didn't like it, but I did it, and my grade subsequently shot up. It was not until I took courses in system design, heat transfer, dynamics, and control systems, when I saw how differential equations actually worked and could work to understand much of the theory behind them.

Footnote: This entry is not in any way going to be an indictment of my university mathematics education (which was on the whole fantastic), a commentary on the perils of testing (which I do like discussing), or on how pure mathematics is not a rich course of study (which I further believe is NOT the case after teaching for several years and actually doing recreational mathematics on my own and with students). I don't care to be boxed into any of those categories - the point is coming, I promise.

Last year was my first time teaching Calculus. Knowing how powerful differential equations are, I had prepared a full day where we spent looking at various differential equations and how they are used to model real phenomena from a bunch of different fields. What I found, however, was that my Calculus students reacted in much the same way as my other math students would when they sensed a day of word problems was ahead. There had to be a better way.

Here's the plan:

Every day, I will show some physical situation with changes that can be modeled using a differential equation. No simulation allowed unless I can also show an actual apparatus that the students can visibly see, feel, hear, or otherwise sense changing over time, distance, etc. There's something really powerful about generating data real-time - especially when it is related to something students can sense themselves.

My progress thus far:

Day 1: Newton's Law of Cooling

I started class by asking a student to bring a mug of hot water from the water dispenser around the corner. When he returned, I tossed in a temperature sensor that I had connected to a National Instruments myDAQ board, and without much other commentary, started some review of antiderivatives. Close to the end, I stopped the LabVIEW program from running, and showed the resulting lovely graph of Temperature vs. time.

This resulted in all sorts of questions and discussions- when was the temperature changing the fastest with respect to time? What would happen to the derivative of temperature with respect to time as time went on? What is the physical meaning of this?

One of the students noted that this happened because the temperature of the cup was higher than the temperature of the room. This started a mini-discussion about situations where the temperature of the cup would rise. This all motivated the idea behind Newton's law of cooling beautifully.

Day 2: Newton's 2nd Law

The physics students weren't impressed by this one. Part of the homework assignment from the previous day was to research and post information on the class wiki about a differential equation that (genuinely) held some meaning or interest for them. A couple of the students independently put on Newton's 2nd, and I accepted it since they did it in slightly different ways. I then showed the students this apparatus (again, not a surprise to the physics students).

This time though, the focus was on the dynamics of an object on a spring. Giving the mass a nudge downward starting it oscillating nicely.

This led us to figure out what the forces acting on it were, namely gravity, the spring force, and possibly friction. This led to the differential equation form of Newton's 2nd law. I did make available a Processing sketch I put together that contained the differential equation so they could see that this really was what governed the motion of the object.

We didn't talk too much about the specifics of the program, as lines of computer code thrown at students tend to result in glassy eyes fairly quickly without proper preparation. We will look at programming again later on in the year though, so I'm not too upset that we didn't talk about the details.

Future topics?

My hope is to include some lights attached to capacitors and resistors to show an RC circuit, a draining tank of water, deflection of a cantilevered beam, maybe even monitoring an oxygen sensor with a candle in a closed container. Part of me also wants to do a bar heated at one end, maybe a bit trickier since it is a partial differential equation, but I think it might also serve to get students thinking about how temperature might vary as functions of time and position. I don't know what else, but I'm excited about the possibilities.

What are your favorite demonstrations of differential equations in action?

Students #flipping class presentations through making videos

Those of you that know the way I usually teach probably also know that projects are not in my comfort zone. I always feel they need to be well defined in such a way to make it so that the mathematical content is the focus, and NOT necessarily about how good it looks, the "flashy factor", or whether it is appropriately stapled. As a result, I often avoid them like the plague. The activities we do in class are usually student centered and involve  a lot of student interaction, and occasionally (much to my dismay) are open ended problems to be solved.

Done well, a good project (and rubric) also involves a good amount of focused interaction between students about the mathematical content. I don't like asking students to make presentations either - what often results is a Powerpoint and students awkwardly gesturing at projected images of text that they then read to the group in front of them. In class, I openly mock adults who do this to my students - I keep the promise that I will never ask them to read to me and their peers standing at the front of the room. Presentation skills are important, don't get me wrong, but I don't see educational gold in the process, or get all tingly about 'real-world skill development' from assigning in-class presentations. They instill fear in the hearts of many students (especially those that are students of ESOL) and require  tolerance from the rest of the class and involved adults to sit through watching them, and require class time in order to 'make' students watch them.

I'm also not convinced they actually learn content by creating them. Take a bunch of information found on Wikipedia or from Google, put it on a number of slides, and read it slowly until your time is up. Where is the synthesis? Where is the real world application of an idea that the student did? What new information is the student generating? If there's very little substantive answer to those questions, it's not worth it. It's no wonder why they go the Powerpoint slide route either - it's generally what they see adults doing when they present something.

In short, I don't like asking students to do something that even adults don't typically do well, and even then without the self-esteem and image issues that teenagers have.

All of that said, I really liked seeing a presentation (a good one, mind you) from Kelly Grogan (@KellyEd121) at the Learning 2.011 conference in Shanghai this past September. She has her students combine written work, digital media, audio, and video into digital documents that can be easily shared with each other and with her as their teacher. The additional dimension of hearing the student talking about his/her work and understanding is a really powerful one. It is but one distilled aspect of what we want students to get out of the projects we assign.

The fact that it isn't live also takes away a lot of the pressure to get it all right in one take. It also takes advantage of the asynchronous capability that technology affords us - I can watch a student's product at home or on my iPad at night, as can the other students. I like how it uses the idea of the flipped classroom to change the idea of student presentations. Students present their understanding or work through video that can be watched at home,  and then the content can be discussed or used in class the next day.

It was with all of this in mind that I decided to assign the project described here:

The proofs were listed on a handout given in class, and students in groups of two chose which proof they wanted to do. Most students submitted their videos today. I'm pretty pleased with how they ran with the idea and made it their own. Some quick notes:

  • The mathematical content is the focus, and the students understood that from the beginning. While the math isn't perfect in every video, the enthusiasm the students had for putting these together was pretty awesome to watch. There's no denying that enthusiasm as a tool for helping students learn - this is a major plus for project based assignments.
  • Some students that rarely volunteer to speak in class have their personalities and voices all over these. I love this.

My plan to hold students accountable for watching these is to have variations of them on the unit test in a couple weeks. I don't have to force the students to watch them though - they had almost all shared them before they were due.

Yes, you heard that right. They had almost all shared their work with each other and talked about it before getting to class. I sometimes have to force this to happen during class, but this assignment encouraged them to do it on their own. Now that's cool.

I have ideas for tweaking it for next time, but I really liked what came out of this. I've been hurt(stung?)  by projects before - giving grades that meet the rubric for the project, but don't actually result in a grade that indicates student learning.

I can see how this concept could really change things though. There's no denying that the work these students produced is authentic to them, and requires engagement with the content. Isn't that what we ultimately want students to know how to do when they leave our classroom?