## Volumes of Revolution – Using This Stuff.

As an activity before our spring break, the Calculus class put its knowledge of finding volumes of revolution to, well, find volumes of things. It was easy to find different containers to use for this – a sample:

We used Geogebra to place points and model the profile of the containers using polynomials. There were many rich discussions about wise placement of points and which polynomials make more sense to use. One involved the subtle differences between these two profiles and what they meant for the resulting volume through calculus methods:

The task was to predict the volume and then use flasks and graduated cylinders to accurately measure the volume. Lowest error wins. I was happy though that by the end, nobody really cared about ‘winning’. They were motivated themselves to theorize why their calculated answer was above or below, and then adjust their model to test their theories and see how their answer changes.

As usual, I have editorial reflections:

• If I had students calculating the volume by hand by integration every time, they would have been much more reluctant to adjust their answers and figure out why the discrepancies existed. Integration within Geogebra was key to this being successful. Technology greases the rails of mathematical experimentation in a way that nothing else does.
• There were a few many lessons that needed to happen along the way as the students worked. They figured out that the images had to be scaled to match the dimensions in Geogebra to the actual dimensions of the object. They figured out that measurements were necessary to make this work. The task demanded that the mathematical tools be developed, so I showed them what they needed to do as needed. It would have been a lot more boring and algorithmic if I had done all of the presentation work up front, and then they just followed steps.
• There were many opportunities for reinforcing the fundamentals of the Calculus concepts through the activity. This is a tangible example of application – the actual volume is either close to the calculated volume or not – there’s a great deal more meaning built up here that solidifies the abstraction of volume of revolution. There were several ‘aha’ moments and I saw them happen. That felt great.

## Angry Birds Project – Results and Post-Mortem

In my post last week, I detailed what I was having students do to get some experience modeling quadratic functions using Angry Birds. I was at the 21CL conference in Hong Kong, so the students did this with a substitute teacher. The student teams each submitted their five predictions for the ratio of hit distance to the distance from the slingshot to the edge of the picture. I brought them into Geogebra and created a set of pictures like this one:

After learning some features of Camtasia I hadn’t yet used, I put together this summary video of the activity:

[wpvideo ysubHH3L]

I played the video, and the students were engaged watching the videos, but there was a general sense of dread (not suspense) on their faces as the team with the best predictions was revealed. This, of course, made me really nervous. They did clap for the winners when they were revealed, and we had some good discussion about modeling, which videos were more difficult and why, but there was a general sense of discomfort all through this activity. Given that I wasn’t quite able to figure out exactly why they were being so awkward, I asked them what they thought of the activity on a scale of 1 – 10.

They hated it.

I should have guessed there might be something wrong when I received three separate emails from the three members one team with results that were completely different. Seeing three members of one team work independently (and inefficiently) is something I’m pretty tuned in to when I am in the room, but this was bigger. It didn’t sound like there was much utilization of the fact that they were in teams. I need to ask about this, but I think they were all working in parallel rather than dividing up the labor, talking about their results, and comparing to each other.

• I need to be a lot more aware of the level of my own excitement around activity in comparison to that of the students. I showed one of the shortened videos at the end of the previous class and asked what questions they really wanted to know. They all said they wanted to know where the bird would land, but in all honesty, I think they were being charitable. They didn’t really care that much. In the game, you learn shortly after whether the bird you fling will hit where you want it to or not. Here, they had to go through a process of importing a picture, fitting a parabola, and finding a zero of a function using Geogebra, and then went a weekend without knowing.

While it is true that using a computer made this task possible, and was more enjoyable than being forced to do this by hand, the relativity of this scale should be suspect. “Oh good, you’re giving me pain meds after pulling my tooth. Let’s do this again!”

• A note about pseudocontext – throwing Angry Birds in to a project does not by itself does not necessarily engage students. It is a way in. I think the way I did this was less contrived than other similar projects I’ve seen, but that didn’t make it a good one. Trying to make things ‘relevant’ by connecting math to something the students like can look desperate if done in the wrong way. I think this was the wrong way.
• I would have gotten a lot more mileage out of the video if I had stopped it here:

That would have been relevant to them, and probably would have resulted in turning this activity back around. I am kicking myself for not doing that. Seriously. That moment WAS when the students were all watching and interested, and I missed it.

Next time. You try and fail and reflect – I’m still glad I did it.

We went on to have a lovely conversation about complex numbers and the equation \$latex x^{2}+4 = 0 \$. One student immediately said that \$ sqrt{-2} \$ was just fine to substitute. Another stayed after class to explain why she thought it was a disturbing idea.

No harm done.

P.S. – Anyone who uses this post as a reason not to try these ideas out with their class and to instead slog on with standard lectures has missed the point. I didn’t do this completely right. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a home run in the right hands.

## Geometric Optics – hitting complexity first

I started what may end up being the last unit in physics with the idea that I would do things differently compared to my usual approach. I taught optics as part of Physics B for a few years, and as many things end to be in that rushed curriculum, it was fairly traditional. Plane mirrors, ray diagrams, equations. Snell’s law, lenses, ray tracing, equations. This was followed by a summary lesson shamefully titled “Mirrors and lenses are both similar and different” , a tribute to the unfortunate starter sentence for many students’ answers to compare and contrast questions that always got my blood boiling.

This time, given the absence of any time pressure, there has been plenty more space to play. We played with the question of how big a plane mirror must be to see one’s whole body with diagrams and debate. We messed with a quick reflection diagram of a circular mirror I threw together in Geogebra to show that light seems to be brought to a point under certain conditions. Granted, I did make suggestions on the three rays that could be used in a ray diagram to locate an image – that was a bit of direct instruction – but today when the warm up involved just drawing some diagrams, they had an entry point to start from.

After drawing diagrams for some convex and concave mirrors, I put a set of mirrors in front of them and asked them to set up the situation described by their diagrams. They made the connection to the terms convex and concave by the labels printed on the flimsy paper envelopes they were shipped in – no big introduction of the vocabulary first was needed, and it would have broken the natural flow of their work. They observed images getting magnified and minefied, and forming inverted or upright. They gasped when I told them to hold a blank sheet of paper above a concave mirror pointed at one of the overhead lights and saw the clear edges of the fluorescent tubes projected on the paper surface. They poked and stared, mystified, while moving their faces forward and backward at the focal point to find the exact location where their face shifted upside down.

After a while with this, I took out some lenses. Each got two to play with. They instantly started holding them up to their eyes and moving them away and noticing the connections to their observations with the mirrors. One immediately noticed that one lens flipped the room when held at arms length but didn’t when it was close, and that another always made everything smaller like the convex mirror did. I asked them to use the terms virtual and real, and they were right on. They were again amazed when the view outside was clearly projected through the convex lens was held in front of a student’s notebook.

I hope I never take for granted how great this small group of students is – I appreciate their willingness to explore and humor me when I am clearly not telling them everything that they need to know to analyze a situation. That said, there is really something to the backwards model of presenting complexity up front, and using that complexity to motivate students to want to understand the basics that will help them explain what they observe. Now that my students see that the lenses are somehow acting like mirrors, it is so much easier to call upon their curiosity to motivate exploring why that is. Now there is a reason for Snell’s law to be in our classroom.

Without planting a hint of why anyone aside from over excited physics teachers would give a flying fish about normals and indices of refraction, it becomes yet one more fact to remember. There’s no mystery. To demand that students go through the entire process of developing physics from basic principles betrays the reality that reverse engineering a finished product can be just as enlightening. I would wager that few people read an instruction manual anymore. Even the design of help in software has changed from a linear list of features in one menu after another to a web of wiki-style tidbits of information on how to do things. Our students are used to managing complexity to do things that are not school related, things that are a lot more real world to them. There is no reason school world has to be different from real world in how we explore and approach learning new things.

## EARCOS 2012 Presentation – Using Geogebra for Skill Development

After a late night getting into Bangkok and a couple hours of sleep (though I suppose few good stories start “I had a good long night of sleep when I first arrived in Thailand) I made it to the start of the EARCOS 2012 Teachers’ conference yesterday morning. I’ll have more to say about the details of the conference later on, but I wanted to post briefly about the presentation I gave on Geogebra in the afternoon.

The room was packed with teachers and coaches armed with laptops and interested in seeing how the program works. My focus was on giving feedback, with Geogebra as the medium for that feedback. I did not intend it to be a beginner’s tutorial on Geogebra for a few reasons:

• There is so much fantastic material out there already that shows how to use the software.
• I wanted to specifically focus on the philosophy of using software to provide instant feedback to students on mathematical tasks.
• Nick Jankiw from Geometers Sketchpad was doing a series of workshops on GSP and I didn’t want to engage in the Geometers Sketchpad vs. Geogebra debate. I see them both as excellent pieces of software. I choose to use Geogebra for a number of reasons that I mentioned in my presentation. The truth is that Geometers Sketchpad defined the field of dynamic geometry, and I do think it’s important to acknowledge that fact.
That said, anyone that wants help getting started with Geogebra should feel free to ask me for help. Thanks to a great suggestion from John Burk (@occam98) and Andy Rundquist (@arundquist) I had some screencasts demonstrating more advanced sketches of my own playing on the screen while waiting for the program to download and while figuring out the basics.
I thought the workshop went well  – I wish I had not felt the need to talk so much and had given more time for people to interact with each other. That said, I think there were many that came and left with much more knowledge than when they entered. A few told me that they already plan to use it next week in their classes.

My slides and accompanying notes can be found here: EARCOS presentation – notes pages

The video is below – unfortunately there wasn’t a great place to put the camera to be able to get me and the slides, and the contrast is not great to be able to see what I am doing in the program. I’ll find some time to post some screencasts of the demonstrations I did with the software later on.

## The TacoCopter? – a gimmick for integration review

I received an email sending me to this site yesterday about the TacoCopter, which of course was spot on given my interest in all things robotic. I also had PID control on the brain thanks to my course on driving a robot car from Udacity. Bits of python code were in my head already, and I had a strong need to put it all together. Given that it was also Sunday (a workday for most teachers) I had to plan for classes tomorrow, specifically Calculus and Physics.

All of this was in the context of the beautiful afternoon I spent on the balcony of the apartment looking out at the warmest, bluest Hangzhou skies of the year so far. It put me in the mood to do something a bit different for tomorrow’s Calculus class. The AP students will be reviewing related rates and implicit differentiation, but the regular students…they get to have a bit more fun.

This is the activity we will be looking at tomorrow in class: CW – TacoCopter Project

The full wiki page that students will be following is located here: http://wiki.hischina.org/groups/gealgerobophysiculus/wiki/42712/Calculus_Unit_8__The_TacoCopter.html

Some python code for simulating the TacoCopter rising to altitude, which can be found here at github.

Then Geogebra for plotting the data, which shows the lovely simulated accelerometer data with noise:

I don’t really know how it will go. At least students will have an excuse to grin as they review.

## Testing expected values using Geogebra

I was intrigued last night looking at Dan Meyer’s blog post about the power of video to clearly define a problem in a way that a static image does not. I loved the simple idea that his video provoked in me – when does one switch from betting on blue vs. purple? This gets at the idea of expected value in a really nice and elegant way. When the discussion turned to interactivity, Geogebra was the clear choice.

I created this simple sketch (downloadable here)as a demonstration that this could easily be turned into an interactive task with some cool opportunities for collecting data from classes. I found myself explaining the task in a slightly different way to the first couple students I showed this to, so I decided to just show Dan’s video to everyone and take my own variable out of the experiment. After doing this with the Algebra 2 (10th grade) group, I did it again later with Geometry (9th) and a Calculus student that happened to be around before lunch.

The results were staggering.

Each colored point represents a single student’s choice for when they would no longer choose blue. Why they chose these was initially beyond me. The general ability level of these groups is pretty strong. After a while of thinking and chatting with students, I realized the following:

• Since the math level of the groups were fairly strong, there had to be something about the way the question was posed that was throwing them off. I got it, but something was off for them.
• The questions the students were asking were all about winning or losing. For example, if they chose purple, but the spinner landed on blue, what would happen? The assumption they had in their heads was that they would either get \$200 or nothing. Of course they would choose to wait until there was a better than 50:50 chance before switching to purple. The part about maximizing the winnings wasn’t what they understood from the task.
• When I modified the language in the sketch to say when do you ‘choose’ purple instead of ‘bet’ on the \$200  between the Algebra 2 group and the Geometry group, there wasn’t a significant change in the results. They still tended to choose percentages that were close to the 50:50 range.

I made an updated sketch that allowed students to do just that, available here in my Geogebra repository. It lets the user choose the moment for switching, simulates 500 spins, and shows the amount earned if the person stuck to either color. I tried it out on an unsuspecting student that stayed after school for some help, one of the ones that had done the task earlier.

Over the course of working with the sketch, the thing he started looking for was not when the best point to switch was, but when the switch point resulted in no difference in the amount of money earned in the long run by spinning 500 times. This, after all, was why when both winning amounts were \$100, there was no difference in choosing blue or purple. This is the idea of expected value – when are the two expected values equal? When posed this way, the student was quickly able to make a fairly good guess, even when I changed the amount of the winnings for each color using the sketch.

I’m thinking of doing this again as a quick quiz with colleagues tomorrow to see what the difference is between adults and the students given the same choice. The thing is, probably because I am a math teacher, I knew exactly what Dan was getting at when I watched the video myself – this is why I was so jazzed by the problem. I saw this as an expected value problem though.

The students had no such biases – in fact, they had more realistic ones that reflect their life experiences. This is the challenge we all face designing learning activities for the classroom. We can try our best to come up with engaging, interesting activities (and engagement was not the issue – they were into the idea) but we never know exactly how they will respond. That’s part of the excitement of the job, no?

## From projectile motion to orbits using Geogebra

I was inspired last night while watching the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory that instead of doing banked curve problems (which are cool, but take a considerable investment of algebra to get into) we would move on to investigating gravity.

The thing that took me a long time to wrap my head around when I first studied physics in high school was how a projectile really could end up orbiting the Earth. The famous Newton drawing of the cannon with successively higher launch velocities made sense. I just couldn’t picture what the transition looked like. Parabolas and circles (and ellipses for that matter) are fundamentally different shapes, and at the time the fact that they were all conic sections was too abstract of a concept for me. Eventually I just accepted that if you shoot a projectile fast enough tangentially to the surface of the Earth, it would never land, but I wanted to see it.

Fast forward to this afternoon and my old friend Geogebra. There had to be a way to give my physics students a chance to play with this and perhaps discover the concept of orbits without my telling them about it first.

The images below are the sorts of things I am hoping my students will figure out tomorrow. From projectile motion:

…to the idea that it is still projectile motion when viewed along with the curvature of the planet:

Continuing to adjust the values yields interesting results that suggest the possibility of how an object might orbit the Earth.

If you open the file, you can look at the spreadsheet view to see how this was put together. This uses Newton’s Law of Gravitation and Euler’s method to calculate the trajectory.You can also change values of the variable deltat to predict movement of the projectile over longer time intervals. There is no meaning to the values of m, v0, or height – thankfully the laws of nature don’t care about units.

As is always the case, feel free to use and adjust this, as well as make it better. My only request – let me know what you do with it!

I want to record a few things about the last couple of days of class here – cool stuff, some successes, some not as good, but all useful in terms of moving forward.

## Geometry:

I have been working incredibly hard to get this class talking about their work. I have stood on chairs. I’ve given pep talks, and gotten merely nods of agreement from students, but there is this amazing resistance to sharing their work or answering questions when it is a teacher-centric moment. There are a couple students that are very willing to present, but I almost think that their willingness overshadows many others who need to get feedback from peers but don’t know how to go about it. What do I do?

We turn it into a workshop. If a student is done, great. I grab the notebook and throw it under the document camera, and we talk about it. (In my opinion, the number one reason to have a document camera in the classroom, aside from demonstrating lab procedures in science, is to make it easy and quick for students get feedback from many people at once. Want to make this even better and less confrontational? Throw up student work and use Today’s Meet to collect comments from everyone.

The most crucial thing that seems to loosen everyone up for this conversation is that we start out with a compliment. Not “you got the right answer”. Usually I tolerate a couple “the handwriting is really neat” and “I like that you can draw a straight line” comments before I say let’s have some comments that focus on the mathematics here. I also give effusive and public thanks to the person whose work is up there (often not fully with their permission, but this is because I am trying to break them of the habit of only wanting to share work that is perfect.) This praise often includes how Student X (who may be not on task but is refocused by being called out) is appreciative that he/she is seeing how a peer was thinking, whether it was incorrect or not. I also noticed that after starting to do this, all students are now doing a better job of writing out their work rather than saying “I’ll do it right on the test, right now I just want to get a quick answer.”

## Algebra 2

We had a few students absent yesterday (which, based on our class size, knocks out a significant portion of the group) so I decided to bite the bullet and do some Python programming with them. We used the Introduction to Python activity made by Google. We are a 1:1 Mac school, and I had everyone install the Python 3 package for OS 10.6 and above. This worked well in the activities up through exercise 8. After this, students were then supposed to write programs using a new window in IDLE. I did not do my research well enough, unfortunately, as I read shortly afterward that IDLE is a bit unstable on Macs due to issues with the GUI module. At this point, however, we were at the end of the period, so it wasn’t the end of the world. I will be able to do more with them now that they have at least seen it.

How would I gauge the student response? Much less resistance than I thought. They seemed to really enjoy figuring out what they were doing, especially with the % operator. That took a long time. Then one student asked if the word was ‘remainder’ in English, and the rest slapped their heads as they simultaneously figured it out. Everyone enjoyed the change of pace.

For homework, in addition to doing some review problems for the unit exam this week, I had them look at the programs here at the class wiki page.

## Physics

I had great success giving students immediate feedback on the physics test they took last week by giving them the solutions to look at before handing it in. I had them write feedback for themselves in colored pencils to distinguish their feedback from their original writing. In most cases, students caught their own mistakes and saw the errors in their reasoning right away. I liked many of the notes that students left for themselves.

This was after reading about Frank Noschese’s experience doing this with his students after a quiz. I realize that this is something powerful that should be done during the learning cycle rather than with a summative assessment – but it also satisfied a lot of their needs to know when they left how they did. Even getting a test back a couple days later, the sense of urgency is lost. I had them walking out of the room talking about the physics rather than talking about how great it was not to be taking a test anymore.

Today we started figuring out circular motion. We played broom ball in the hallway with a simple task – get good at making the medicine ball go around in a circle using only the broom as the source of force.

We then came in and tried to figure out what was going on. I took pictures of all of their diagrams showing velocity and the applied force to the ball.

It was really interesting to see how they talked to each other about their diagrams. I think they were pretty close to reality too, particularly since the 4 kilogram medicine ball really didn’t have enough momentum to make it very far (even on a smooth marble floor) without needing a bit of a tangential force to keep its speed constant. They were pretty much agreed on the fact that velocity was tangent and net force was at least pointed into the circle. To what extent it was pointed in, there wasn’t a consensus. So Weinberg thinks he’s all smart, and throws up the Geogebra sketch he put together for this very purpose:

All I did was put together the same diagram that is generally in textbooks for deriving the characteristics of centripetal acceleration. We weren’t going to go through the steps – I just wanted them to see a quick little demo of how as point C was brought closer to B, that the change in velocity approached the radial direction. Just to see it. Suddenly the students were all messed up. Direction of change of velocity? Why is there a direction for change in velocity? We eventually settled on doing some vector diagrams to show why this is, but it certainly took me down a notch. If these students had trouble with this diagram, what were the students who I showed this diagram and did the full derivation in previous years thinking?

Patience and trust – I appreciate that they didn’t jump out the windows to escape the madness.

_______________________________________________________

All in all, some good things happening in the math tower. Definitely enjoying the experimentation and movement AWAY from lecturing and using the I do, we do, you do model, but there are going to be days when you try something and it bombs. Pick up the pieces, remind the students you appreciate their patience, and be ready to try again the next day.

## Presenting the MVT In Calculus w/ Geogebra…tech as a game changer.

During our warm-up activity today, we looked at a function and identified critical points, relative, and absolute extrema for this function:

It was kind of neat talking about this and the extreme value theorem from last time. Since the domain is not defined over a closed interval, the EVT doesn’t guarantee the existence of an absolute maximum or minimum value. The students seemed to really get the idea this year that this function specifically has no absolute maximum over the domain because it is an open interval – last year there was a lot of confused faces on this idea. There were a couple really insightful comments about whether there would be an open interval domain over which the function did have an absolute maximum, even though the hypothesis wasn’t satisfied. The theorem just tells you whether or not you are guaranteed to find one, not that there isn’t one at all. Really good stuff, and I’m proud of the way everyone was chiming in to talk about what they understood.

The most important thing was that this led perfectly into introducing the idea of an existence theorem. This idea is different from other theorems (especially in comparison to geometry) that students have learned because the information it gives you is not as specific as “alternate interior angles are congruent” or “the remainder of polynomial P(x) upon division by (x – c) is P(c)”. All it does is tells you whether you can find what the theorem says is there. I didn’t plan on having this discussion today, but it was perfect for then introducing the mean value theorem, and I will definitely repeat it in the future.

I then gave my students this geogebra applet to play with today.

The students understood pretty quickly what they had to do, and didn’t seem to have a hard time. It was kind of interesting to watch them rediscover the concept of forming a tangent line using two points, as that concept has been a bit overshadowed by other things as we looked at derivative rules before the test they took last week. Some students moved P and Q so that they were tangent, and then adjusted the domain using C and D to find a domain over which the tangent line and line AB were parallel.

From this, I showed them what the slope of line AB represented (average rate of change over the interval) and came up with the right side of the MVT. We then talked about what the slope of the tangent line they identified represented – a couple immediately referenced the derivative of the function. What is the relationship between parallel lines? What would make it so that you couldn’t find this value? Ideas of continuity and differentiability jumped out. There it was: the entire mean value theorem.

Last year I presented the students with the MVT, and then we drew graphs to represent what it was saying. They kind of got it, but it wasn’t a sticky idea. I was doing all the developing. This approach today started with something visual that they were doing, that they could understand intuitively, and then that intuition was applied to develop an abstract concept out of that understanding.

I continued doing what I had done last year – answering some multiple choice questions about the MVT (See here for today’s handout) analytically, and I immediately lost a couple students. So I showed them how to throw the new function into Geogebra and adjust the domain to match the problem. They could then solve the problems graphically – they immediately located the points to be able to answer the questions.

The group is a mix of AP and non-AP exam bound students. I will introduce them all to the analytic ways of identifying these points, and we did some of it today. It was really nice that the moment things got a bit too abstract, I could push students to identify how the question being asked was the same as the idea of the MVT, and they were then able to solve it.

Without the technology, these students would have been done for the rest of the period. Those that could handle the algebra, would. Those that couldn’t would spend the rest of the period feeling like they were in over their heads. Introducing how to use the technology to really understand what was being said by the abstract theorem enabled many more students to get in on the game. That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The rest of the class focused on definitions of increasing functions using the derivative, something that was made incredibly easy by referring back to the activity at the beginning of the period.

We’ll see how well they remember the ideas moving forward, but it felt great knowing that, at least for today’s lesson, everyone in the room had a way into the game.

## The museum in your classroom – exploration, discovery, play, and authentic learning

I was visiting the Great Lakes Science center with family during high school. I was busy reading information printed on a horizontal rotating triangular prism – the three sides had facts about the phenomenon being demonstrated at the exhibit, though I don’t remember what the exhibit was about. While I was reading, a younger student came along and stood in front of me to view the exhibit. He barely paid any attention to me; his attention was piqued when he placed his hand flat on the prism and it rotated slightly under the weight. He then proceeded to flick the prism as hard as he could to see how fast he could make it turn. That was how he spent a couple of minutes while I looked on, flabbergasted by both his lack of interest in the flashing exhibit in front of him and the fact that all the exhibit inspired him to do was to challenge himself to a spinning competition. Once he was satisfied that he had peaked in the spinning task, he went off to a new exhibit.

I was pretty annoyed as a sixteen year old science enthusiast. How dare he not take the time to read what was printed at the exhibit? Not even try? There was so much good knowledge there to be learned – why bother coming to the museum if you weren’t going to try to learn something new? The best part for me was coming and playing with the exhibits and then seeing what science principle was being demonstrated. This was (as I understood it at the time) what science was all about.

For me, this was not something that was limited to museum visits. I had a pretty good arrangement for doing investigation at home as well. I was always able and encouraged to go outside and explore in the woods, burn stuff with magnifying glasses (not of course while doing the previous activity), and do experiments mixing things in the kitchen. I am incredibly grateful that my mom allowed me to do these experiments in spite of my frequent habit of rushing away afterwards without cleaning up. I didn’t realize at the time how unique it was that she let me do some of the things I did, and probably would have cleaned up myself more often  if I had. (I did do so marginally more often after a particularly stern chat about the difficulties of removing hardened candle wax from the good silverware. She clearly explained that the experiments would stop if I didn’t do this sort of cleaning myself.) The other major time I realized I should be grateful was when I accidentally removed the gold coating on a fork during an electroplating experiment. (Sorry mom.)

One that sticks in my mind was after I first learned about objects from space reentering the atmosphere and burning up.  I didn’t understand how metal objects could burn – I had seen metal melt before on TV, but could it really burn? I took a penny and some cooking tongs to the gas stove and held the penny in the flame for a long time. I was able to see the penny get hot and ultimately glow. I had a bowl of cold water there to drop the penny into afterwards. The colored patterns on its surface reminded me of a picture in a magazine that showed the oxidation patterns on a sample of material that had survived reentry. I also tried wires and aluminum foil in the flame, and the way both materials twisted around themselves and changed both in appearance and material properties gave me some insight into what it meant for metal to burn.

Was there a goal? Not really. I didn’t write up a lab report or keep a notebook recording my observations. These were just experiences in which I explored what I could do with the stuff in front of me. I did get the sense that this sort of thing was distinctly different from what I was doing in school because there was no assessment. I don’t know if she ever talked to others about her son “playing on the stove” as she called it. At the time I objected to her calling it that because I thought it made it sound like I was being reckless. I had a purpose to my experiments. I was creating meaning on my own as I had done throughout my Montessori elementary education. And I was careful when carrying out these investigations.

Years later, I have a different understanding the role of play in learning. I really like this TED talk by Stuart Brown that talks about some of the reasons why play is important. Much of what I have learned about building with LEGO is in the context of playing in an unguided way. Another major influence on my philosophy on play was K.C. Cole’s book Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, which I heard about during the summer before teaching biology for the first time to ninth graders. The book describes physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of Robert Oppenheimer) and the full story of his life as a father, rancher, teacher, and ultimately creator of the world class Exploratorium.

I have visited the Exploratorium twice. There is no other museum in the world that has influenced me in such a visceral way as that museum. as I can still picture numerous things at that museum and what I learned from doing the exhibits. Reading about Frank and his process of seeing the museum as vital was really important to defining something that I think I hadn’t officially acknowledged in the preceding six years I had been teaching.

First, some Frank Oppenheimer quotes from a speech he gave upon receiving an award from the American Association of Museums, along with my thoughts:

Many people who talk about the discovery method of teaching are really talking about arranging a lesson or an experiment so that students discover what they are supposed to discover. That is not an exploration. The whole tradition of exploration is being lost for entire generations.

There is a role for discovery in our classrooms. This is not, as is often thought, the expectation that students will spontaneously figure out Newton’s laws or the quadratic formula. These are instead carefully designed activities through which students arrive at an idea. Our world needs more interactivity. People, not just students, are spending less time constructing their own understanding, and more time (since we are all inherently busy) hoping that others can explain things to us since it will invariably be faster this way.

If one of the things, however, we want to teach students is how to construct their own understanding, this is not going to come from giving them information and then telling them how to use it. Any way we can engage students to interact with the material actively instead of merely receiving content moves us closer to that goal.

It is, therefore, more important than ever that museums assume the responsibility for providing the opportunities for exploration that are lacking for both city and suburban dwellers. It would be fine, indeed, if they would, but it will take a bit of doing to do so properly. If museums are too unstructured, too unmanageable, people get lost and simply want to get back to home base. On the other hand, if they are too rigid, too structured or too channeled, there are no possibilities for individual choice or discovery.

It may be useful to note that these quotes are from 1982. Certainly these issues are no different nearly thirty years later. If lesson activities for students are too unstructured, they may have no idea of the learning goal, what they are supposed to figure out, or how to get from one point to another. They get lost. They get cranky. They would rather just be told information. This, however, is the opposite extreme. While some students demand the structure, there are serious limitations to the quality of learning experiences under a classroom model that is too rigid.

Exploring, like doing basic research, is often fruitless. Nothing comes of it. But also like basic research, as distinct from applied or directed research, exploring enables one to divert attention from preconceived paths to pursue some intriguing lead: a fragrance, a sight or smell, an interesting street or cave, an open meadow encountered suddenly in the woods or a patch of flowers that leads one off the trail, or even a hole in the ground! Often it is precisely as a result of aimless exploration that one does become intensely directed and preoccupied.

A museum that allows exploration does not have to be disorganized either physically or conceptually. It does, however, mean that the museum must contain a lot of which people can readily miss, so that discovery becomes something of a surprise, a triumph, not so much of personal achievement as of personal satisfaction. It is the kind of satisfaction that invariably leads me to tell someone about the experience.

When people in a museum find something that engages them, that moment of engagement is what justifies the museum’s existence. That may be what the visitor remembers about their museum experience. It may also be the sort of experience that causes the visitor to come back, and ideally, bring a friend or child. A well designed exhibit involves its visitors in its operation, tries to engage them, and along the way provides interesting information in the off chance a visitor is interested. A good museum has many of these experiences.

Here is the key idea that changed the way I decorate my classroom, organize my lessons, and structure my time with students:

You cannot entirely control what your students will get out of their time with you.

I have spent lots of time designing what I thought were perfect lessons only to have students remember the fact that I used colors in my handout, even months later, because that was what stuck with them.

You can tell them what you want them to get out of an activity. You can assess that they got out of the activity what you wanted them to get out of it. You can also try to tell them why something should be interesting to them. (Not recommended) None of these work well, at least authentically well when it comes to evaluating our use of an activity to reach specific learning goals.

What you can do is provide a range of activities, approaches, and experiences for your students. Providing students a chance to play in your classroom is one of the most powerful tools in our tool chest. You can’t play incorrectly. You can’t get playing wrong. Play is one of the few times when the only judgments being made belong to the individual that is playing. In the world of math education where students still see math as a class where there is always a right answer, and that right answers are inherently worth more than wrong answers, we need play more than ever.

What does play look like? Not like the majority of lessons I do, admittedly, but I’m working on that. The real reason this doesn’t happen as often as I want it to is that it doesn’t necessarily feel productive. I force myself to push through this because I’ve had the idea of clear learning goals and measurable objectives drilled into my head from the moment I started teaching. The problem is that real learning doesn’t look like this. When we figure things out, it isn’t with the end goal in mind. Unstructured time to just be in the presence of an idea that motivates itself is enough to get students to think as they do during play.

The biggest tool that we have at our disposal though is the use of technology. I’ve seen students discover by accident that when you hit the equal sign on some calculators, it repeats the previous operation with the answer. What do most students do when they discover this after multiplying? They hit it a bunch of times until the calculator overflows. Sometimes they will do the same thing with multiplying a decimal, and the number of zeroes to the right of the decimal point increases. Is there a lesson on place value or exponential functions there? Sure. The moment you tell them that though, it suddenly ceases to be exploration and starts becoming Math Class.

It’s also easy to create a Geogebra sketch of a quadrilateral with measured angles and tell students to “play” with it for five minutes. The goal is not to have them discover the sum of the interior angles is 360 degrees, though they might observe that. The goal is instead to give them a chance to interact with a mathematical object and have an experience that is all their own. Then start the lesson. See what happens. This is exactly what Noah Podolefsky from the PhET physics simulation project at the University of Colorado recommends students be allowed to do for 5 – 10 minutes before telling students what you want them to use the simulation to do.

The other aspect of this is in decorating my classroom. I don’t want so much on the walls that students will be continually distracted. I do want things that create interesting learning experiences without much effort. I hung a spring between two corners of the room as an example of a catenary curve – students don’t care about that. They do walk by it all the time and make it bounce up and down. Sometimes they see how long it takes for the vibrations to die down. Sometimes they hang things on it to see how it changes the droop in the overall spring. I have a bicycle wheel that normally is used as a demonstration of conservation of angular momentum. Students have instead spun it and observed that it stays upright like a top on the table. I have a checker board with checkers, the game Set, little metal puzzles, and a bunch of other things that don’t require a whole lot of explanation to be interesting. It’s amazing to see how the students use their down time to interact with these objects and with each other – it makes my classroom the same safe learning environment of a museum. The dream is to create this environment during every single lesson.

Looking back, the kid that stepped in front of my at the Great Lakes Science Center wasn’t learning what the exhibit designers intended him to learn. He was, however, constructing his own knowledge when he spun the prism as fast he could. He might have gotten some notion of what feels different about a force and a torque. He might have seen that the rotation only increased in speed while his hand was in contact with it – an intuitive concept related to Newton’s 2nd law.

Or not. It was pretty hypocritical of me to judge and potentially hamper his learning process when so many others (including my mom, who had many good, flammable reasons to do so) did not. He wasn’t using the museum wrong – I was. He was just doing what came naturally.

Entirety of Frank Oppenheimer’s speech to the American Association of Museums, 1982 can be found here.
I also find myself going back to this article written by Oppenheimer about teaching as a quick reminder of all sorts of important ideas.