Math is everywhere! - fractals on the Franz Josef glacier

One of the stops on our New Zealand adventure was at the Franz Josef glacier on the West coast. We went on the full day hike which gave us plenty of time to explore the various ice formations on the glacier under the careful eye of our guide. Along the way up the glacier, I took the following series of pictures:

All of these were taken on the way up the glacier. Can you tell in what order I took them? If you're like my students (and a few others I have shown these to), you will likely be incorrect.

I realized as I was walking that this might be because of the idea of self-similarity, a characteristic of fractals in which small parts are similar to the whole. When I showed this set of pictures to my geometry class, I then showed them a great video video zooming in on the Mandelbrot fractal to show them what this meant.

The formations in the ice and the sizes of the rocks broken off my the glacier contributed to the overall effect. Here is another shot looking down the face of the glacier in which you can see four different groups of people for a size comparison:

 

The cooler thing than seeing this in the first place was discovering that it's a real phenomenon! There are some papers out there discussing the fact that the grain size distribution of glacial till (the soil, sand, and rocks broken off by the glacier) is consistent throughout a striking range of magnitudes. The following chart is from Principles of Glacier Mechanics by Roger Leb. Hooke:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are interested in exploring these pictures more, here are the full size ones in the same A-B-C-D order from above:



Oh, and in case you are wondering, the correct order is B-C-A-D.

Relating modeling & abstraction on two wheels.

Over the course of my vacation in New Zealand, I found myself rethinking many things about the subjects I teach. This wasn't really because I was actively seeing the course concepts in my interactions on a daily basis, but rather because the sensory overload of the new environment just seemed to shock me into doing so.

One of these ideas is the balance between abstraction and concrete ideas. Being able to physically interact with the world is probably the best way to learn. I've seen it myself over and over again in my own classes and in my own experience. There are many situations in which the easiest way to figure something out is to just go out and do it. I tried to do this the first time I wanted to learn to ride a bicycle - I knew there was one in the garage, so I decided one afternoon to go and try it out. I didn't need the theory first to ride a bicycle - the best way is just to go out and try it.

Of course, my method of trying it was pretty far off - as I understood the problem , riding a bicycle first required that you get the balancing down. So I sat for nearly an hour rocking from side to side trying to balance.

My dad sneaked into the garage to see what I was up to, and pretty quickly figured it out and started laughing. He applauded my initiative in wanting to learn how to do it, but told me there is a better way to learn. In other words, having just initiative is not enough - a reliable source of feedback is also necessary for solving a problem by brute force. That said, with both of these in hand, this method will often beat out a more theoretical approach.

This also came to mind when I read a comment from a Calculus student's portfolio. I adjusted how I presented the applications of derivatives a bit this year to account for this issue, but it clearly wasn't good enough. This is what the student said:

Something I didn't like was optimisation. This might be because I wasn't there for most of
the chapter that dealt with it, so I didn't really understand optimisation. I realise that optimisation applies most to real life, but some of the examples made me think that, in real life, I would have just made the box big enough to fit whatever needed to fit inside or by the time I'd be done calculating where I had to swim to and where to walk to I could already be halfway there.

Why sing the praises of a mathematical idea when, in the real world, no logical person would choose to use it to solve a problem?

This idea appeared again when reading The Mathematical Experience by Philip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh during the vacation. On page 302, they make the distinction between analytical mathematics and analog mathematics. Analog math is what my Calculus student is talking about, using none of "the abstract symbolic structures of 'school' mathematics." The shortest distance between two points is a straight line - there is no need to prove this, it is obvious! Any mathematical rules you apply to this make the overall concept more complex. On the other hand, analytic mathematics is "hard to do...time consuming...fatiguing...[and] performed only by very few people" but often provides insight and efficiency in some cases where there is no intuition or easy answer by brute force. The tension between these two approaches is what I'm always battling in my mind as a swing wildly from exploration to direct instruction to peer instruction to completely constructivist activities in my classroom.

Before I get too theoretical and edu-babbly, let's return to the big idea that inspired this post.

I went mountain biking for the first time. My wife and I love biking on the road, and we wanted to give it a shot, figuring that the unparalleled landscapes and natural beauty would be a great place to learn. It did result in some nasty scars (on me, not her, and mostly on account of the devilish effects of combining gravity, overconfidence, and a whole lot of jagged New Zealand mountainside) but it was an incredible experience. As our instructors told us, the best way to figure out how to ride a mountain bike down rocky trails is to try it, trust intuition, and to listen to advice whenever we could. There wasn't any way to really explain a lot of the details - we just had to feel it and figure it out.

As I was riding, I could feel the wind flowing past me and could almost visualize the energy I carried by virtue of my movement. I could look down and see the depth of the trail sinking below me, and could intuitively feel how the potential energy stored by the distance between me and the center of the Earth was decreasing as I descended. I had the upcoming unit on work and energy in physics in the back of my mind, and I knew there had to be some way to bring together what I was feeling on the trail to the topic we would be studying when we returned.

When I sat down to plan exactly how to do this, I turned to the great sources of modeling material for which I have incredible appreciation of being able to access , namely from Kelly O'Shea and the Modeling center at Arizona State University. In looking at this material I have found ways this year to adapt what I have done in the past to make the most of the power of thinking and students learning with models. I admittedly don't have it right, but I have really enjoyed thinking about how to go through this process with my students. I sat and stared at everything in front of me, however - there was conflict with the way that I previously used the abstract mathematical models of work, kinetic energy, and potential energy in my lessons and the way I wanted students to intuitively feel and discover what the interaction of these ideas meant. How much of the sense of the energy changes I felt as I was riding was because of the mathematical model I have absorbed over the years of being exposed to it?

The primary issue that I struggle with at times is the relationship between the idea of the conceptual model as being distinctly different from mathematics itself, especially given the fact that one of the most fundamental ideas I teach in math is how it can be used to model the world. The philosophy of avoiding equations because they are abstractions of the real physics going on presumes that there is no physics in formulating or applying the equations. Mathematics is just one type of abstraction.

A system schema is another abstraction of the real world. It also happens to be a really effective one for getting students to successfully analyze scenarios and predict what will subsequently happen to the objects. Students can see the objects interacting and can put together a schema to represent what they see in front of them. Energy, however, is an abstract concept. It's something you know is present when observing explosions, objects glowing due to high temperature, baseballs whizzing by, or a rock loaded in a slingshot. You can't, however, observe or measure energy in the same way you can measure a tension force. It's hard to really explain what it is. Can a strong reliance on mathematics to bring sense to this concept work well enough to give students an intuition for what it means?

I do find that the way I have always presented energy is pretty consistent with what is described in some of the information on the modeling website - namely thinking about energy storage in different ways. Kinetic energy is "stored" in the movement of an object, and can be measured by measuring its speed. Potential energy is "stored" by the interaction of objects through a conservative force. Work is a way for one to object transfer energy to another through a force interaction, and is something that can be indicated from a system schema. I haven't used energy pie diagrams or bar charts or energy flow diagrams, but have used things like them in my more traditional approach.

The main difference in how I have typically taught this, however, is that mathematics is the model that I (and physicists) often use to make sense of what is going on with this abstract concept of energy. I presented the equation definition of work at the beginning of the unit as a tool. As the unit progressed, we explored how that tool can be used to describe the various interactions of objects through different types of forces, the movement of the objects, and the transfer of energy stored in movement or these interactions. I have never made students memorize equations - the bulk of what we do is talk about how observations lead to concepts, concepts lead to mathematical models, and then models can then be tested against what is observed. Equations are mathematical models. They approximate the real world the same way a schema does. This is the opposite of the modeling instruction method, and admittedly takes away a lot of the potential for students to do the investigating and experimentation themselves. I have not given this opportunity to students in the past primarily because I didn't know about modeling instruction until this past summer.

I have really enjoyed reading the discussions between teachers about the best ways to transition to a modeling approach, particularly in the face of the knowledge (or misinformation) they might already have . I was especially struck by a comment I read in one of the listserv articles by Clark Vangilder (25 Mar 2004) on this topic of the relationship between mathematical models and physics:

It is our duty to expose the boundaries between meaning, model, concept and representation. The Modeling Method is certainly rich enough to afford this expense, but the road is long, difficult and magnificent. The three basic modeling questions of "what do you see...what can you measure...and what can you change?" do not address "what do you mean?" when you write this equation or that equation...The basic question to ask is "what do you mean by that?," whatever "that" is.

Our job as teachers is to get students to learn to construct mental models for the world around them, help them test their ideas, and help them understand how these models do or do not work. Pushing our students to actively participate in this process is often difficult (both for them and for us), but is inevitably more successful in getting them to create meaning for themselves on the content of what we teach. Whether we are talking about equations, schema, energy flow diagrams, or discussing video of objects interacting with each other, we must always be reinforcing the relationship between any abstractions we use and what they represent. The abstraction we choose should be simple enough to correctly describe what we observe, but not so simple as to lead to misconception. There should be a reason to choose this abstraction or model over a simpler one. This reason should be plainly evident, or thoroughly and rigorously explored until the reason is well understood by our students.

Graphical Systems in Geogebra and crashing LEGO robots in Algebra 2

In the Algebra 2 class, we started our unit on solving systems of equations. From a teaching perspective, this provides all sorts of opportunities for students to conceptualize what solutions to systems mean from a graphical, algebraic, and numerical perspective. Some students seem to like the topic because it tends to be fairly straight forward, is algorithmic, and has many ways to check and confirm whether it has been done correctly.

I used this as my warm-up activity today:

a) Estimate the solution of the system.

b) Write an equation for each line in standard form.

c) In Geogebra, select CAS view and type the following using your two equations: Solve[{7x+3y=6,3x-4y=12},{x,y}]

d) Use your calculator and convert these values to decimals. How close are these to your estimate?

We had some great discussions about the positives and negatives of graphical solutions to equations. Weaker students got some much needed practice writing equations for lines. For all students, this led to some good conversations about choosing two points that the lines clearly pass through for writing equations (if possible) rather than guessing at the y-intercept. The students also got the idea of how Geogebra can solve a system of equations exactly as a quick check for their algebra, an improvement over substituting (which is at times more trouble than it's worth for students with poor arithmetic) and slightly faster than solving for y on a graphing calculator and finding the intersection.

I also like the unit, though I don't tend to like the word problems. It's hard to convince students about the large scale importance of coin problems (especially in an international school with everyone used to different currency) or finding how many tickets were sold at the door or advance since anyone with a brain would just ask the person tallying the tickets.

I also found myself thinking about Dan Meyer's post over the summer about how many word problems are made up for the purposes of math, rather than using mathematics to analyze cool situations and create problems out of the situations. Getting students to figure out how to use the math to do this is ultimately what we want them to learn to do anyway. Figuring out when trains pass each other is not exciting to students, but I realized this morning while brushing my teeth that doing this problem with real robots either crashing into each other or racing adds a neat dimension to this problem. The question of figuring out both when they will crash or catch up to each other, and also where they will do so is a clear motivation for finding a solution to a system of equations describing their positions as functions of time.

So I gave the students the two robots (videos of them posted at http://bit.ly/vIs0lu and http://bit.ly/u9jSPB) . I told them I was going to set them apart a certain distance that was tentatively 80 centimeters, but said I wanted the ability to change that at any time. I wanted them to predict when and where they would collide.

The rules:

No, you can't just run the experiment and see where they crash. That not only defeats the purpose of this exercise, but we will be doing this sort of activity in a couple different ways during the unit, so being able to do this analytically is important. You also can't run both robots at the same time - that's for those of you that are going to try to be lawyers and break that first rule.

You can measure anything you want using any units that you want using either robot individually.

At some point, you should be able to show me how you are modeling the position of each robot as a function of time.


And I set them off to figure things out. Despite the fact there were only two robots, the 12 kids naturally divided themselves up into a couple teams to characterize each robot, and there was some good sharing of data amidst some whining about how annoying it was to actually measure things. In the end, most students at least had some idea of how they were going to put together their models, and some had actually written out what they were. As one would hope for these types of activities, there were plenty of examples of students helping others to understand what they were doing. The engagement was clearly there, as confirmed by students visibly excited to run the robot and time how long it took for it to move around.

It was a fun exercise that I plan to return to in a few ways during this unit - perhaps some interrobo-species interaction (my iCreate robot is charging up as we speak). Fun times.

UPDATE: This is the video of the next day's class when students solved their functions. I set the robots apart from each other and the students did the rest.

What do you do when they don't need you?

I've tried an experiment over the last two days - my advanced algebra students and geometry students each had some challenging tasks that I sort of left to them to figure out. Last year, I taught them very explicitly how to do the tasks at hand, modeled some examples along side their own work, and then gave them time in class to practice. For homework, I gave them more problems that were similar to those we did in class, giving them more chances to practice what I had assigned them.

This year I turned it around. In geometry, we are starting proofs. I gave them a couple relatively simple ones, and asked them in groups of two to construct some sort of logical reasoning to go from a starting point to proving the statement I had given them. There was a lot of struggling, difficulty stating using facts why one logical statement led to another. Over time, they did start communicating with each other and sharing what they were thinking. I did occasionally poke one group in a certain direction, but didn't lead the whole group in that way. Eventually they were all thinking along the lines that I envisioned at the beginning. I could have modeled for them what I did last year, but I saw a lot of really good conversations along the way. By the end, they were much closer to making their own proofs than they had in the beginning. By the end, they were clearly seeing the connections between thoughts. This was only the second class period during which we had talked about proofs. While I don't think any of them would wager large sums of money over constructing geometric proofs, I think they at least see how the system can be used to make logical statements that are irrefutable.

I did something similar with the advanced algebra group which was to figure out graphing absolute value functions during our lesson last Friday. I gave them an exploration that was, in hindsight, confusing and didn't do much aside from frustrate them with Geogebra commands. I told them that I wanted them to use Geogebra, the textbook, Wolfram Alpha, and any other resources available to learn how to graph any arbitrary absolute value function by hand. At the end of the class I broke down and apologized for giving a poorly designed exploration. I told them I would put together a video on graphing functions, and I did - posted it on the wiki.

When we had class on Tuesday, I found out that none of the students had actually taken advantage of the video. They had looked in the textbook. They had graphed functions over and over. When I asked students to share what they had figured out, one student used a table of values and a piecewise function based on the sign of the argument of the absolute value function. Another student had graphed both the argument of the absolute value function and its opposite since that was what this student had observed, and then erased either the top half or bottom half of the graph. Another student broke down and did what the book said to do. By the end, all of them were graphing absolute value functions using their own method. I wasn't sure about understanding, but in the end, I admit that I didn't quite mind. They all had their own models for what was going on, and they were confident that they could use the technology to confirm whether what they were doing was right or not.

I have always wondered about what I would do in the situation where it was clear a group of students didn't need me to be there. In a way, this is part of my fear of tools like Khan academy - if there are others out there that are more engaging, better at explaining ideas, or better at coming up with really interesting questions that got students thinking about what they were doing, and these people happened to make videos: what would I do in my classroom if students got hold of these videos? Would I be mad? Or would I figure out a way to take advantage of the fact that students had figured something out on their own and use it to do something even more interesting or impressive?

I think I do a good job of engaging students - today we were talking about differentiability and we were joking like crazy about whether functions would be differentiable at a given point or not. Really? Were we really joking about this? It seemed like everyone was minimally entertained, but based on the questions I was bouncing around from person to person, it seemed like they also understood the concept. I know teachers that are more effective though at making kids understand and be entertained and do problem after problem until concepts are so painfully clear that they become automatic. These teachers could easily make a career in stand-up or television based on their comedic brilliance and presence - what if they decide to make videos?

What then? What do I do? If I get to that point, is it the end of my usefulness as a teacher?

Or is that just the beginning? Maybe that's the point where I can assume my students have a certain level of basic knowledge and I can then build off of that level to do even cooler stuff. Maybe that's where I can assume, for once, that my students have a base level of skills, and can then rise above to analyze bridges or patterns in nature or create a mathematical model that inspires a student to choose to be a doctor or engineer where he or she never would have if I hadn't done the right project or group activity or lesson. Maybe the fact that I entrusted my students to try to figure out something on their own is enough that they feel empowered to try things even if failing again and again is a possibility. Make mistakes and come back asking questions about why their theories were incorrect. I remember worrying at one point in my career what horrible things would happen if I somehow introduced students to a concept in a way that it caused them get a question wrong and cause them just one more failure in a line of failures. If I could teach in a way that makes students feel OK coming in the next day saying "I didn't get it, but this is what I tried" I'd feel pretty good about myself. That is, ultimately, the sort of resilience that a person needs to survive in this world.

If the students show us that they don't need us to show them how to solve a specific problem, then we as teachers should honestly accept this fact. Our goals, if they can do the problem in a way that is mathematically correct, should shift to applying that ability to doing something more profound and relevant, be it communicating that solution or applying the solution to a new situation that is different but connected in a subtle way. Our job puts us in contact with some really amazing minds that are eager to do what we say in some circumstances. In the cases that they demonstrate that they don't need us - that is when we must apply our professional judgment and teach them to expand their knowledge to something bigger than themselves.

Not sure why I'm waxing so philosophical today, but I've been really impressed with my students this week, and it's only Wednesday! After these few days, it feels like what I'm doing with this group is like using a super computer to do word processing. I only hope they are enjoying the process as much as I am.

Climbing Mount Tai - #wcydwt edition

I am spending an amazing few days with students on this year's class trip to Shandong province in China. We spent a couple days wandering around Qufu, the home of Confucius, and the location of the temple and mansion constructed for his relatives. There were some cool opportunities to think about mathematical thinking in Chinese architecture (more on that later) but nothing ready for prime time.

Today's trek led us to the foot of Mount Tai, China's #1 mountain for it's cultural significance (not due to it's height.) we decided as a group to trek up the mountain from the Heaven's Gate which reduced the climb somewhat, but will descend the full height of the mountain in the morning after watching the sunrise.

From Wikipedia (to be replaced by my own pics when I get home, I promise.)

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The realization that I might be able to do something really cool with this came after regretting that I had decided to leave two of my favorite data collection devices (heart rate monitor and hiker's GPS) at home being unsure during packing if they would really be worth bringing. I had done this hike in March and had several conflicting reports of the exact height we climbed up and down. The students were asking me how many steps there were, and I vaguely recalled something around 7,000, but I wasn't sure. This question actually popped out from a few different students as we passed the first set of steps. It got me thinking. Is it possible to take either one of these numbers (height or number of steps) and try to calculate or estimate the other? If the students were asking it standing at the bottom looking up, there might be a possibility they would be interested in answering it on their own if posed the right way.

I grabbed my camera and grabbed the best standard length measure I had on me: my iPhone.

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(It probably isn't necessary to say this, but this is just an example I took in the hotel.)

I took a number of pictures like the one above on way up the steps, trying to come up with a fairly random sampling of the size of stairs compared to the phone along the entire height. Through some combination of Geogebra, pencil & paper calculations, and some group discussion, I can see some height calculations for the climb coming out of this.

On the way up, there was also a perfect "answer" to this challenge posted in the form of a placard fixed to the wall that says both the vertical height and the number of steps - again, I will include a picture of this when I can transfer photos from the camera I used to take the good photos. I could see cropping this photo in a way that hides the answer, though I'm sure there is a more dramatic Act 3 to this challenge out there.

I think there is some potential here for some fun, as well as for good student discussion and writing about how close the number actually gets to the right answer. This is the second time in a week that I've been able to find something good that could work for a class activity, and I wanted to get the details out while still buzzed about its prospects.

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