Bicycles are STEM

STEM

Last week the NYCDOE ran their first ever STEM Institute. It was a fairly large event; I want to say there was over 400 teachers and 30 presenters in attendance. I have no idea how accurate those numbers are, so don’t quote me, but they seem about right. The workshops were obviously focused on STEM disciplines, which are typically things such as applied math, robotics, computer science, environmental science, and the like.

What was intriguing most about the whole Institute was the fact that I was able help lead a workshop on bicycle mechanics. Yes, mechanics. (Thank you UBI.) My sessions focused on how bicycles and bicycle culture fit into the whole STEM arena. I teach both math and robotics, which are at the heart of STEM, so extending STEM to include bicycles, a huge passion of mine, is pretty exciting.

Bicycles aren’t something that people typically think of when they hear STEM. That is what made the experience so awesome. The whole thing felt like unchartered territory. I helped lead the way as 18 teachers got greasy, learned how to overhaul a bottom bracket, adjusted derailleurs, and then spent a few hours developing STEM lessons and curricula centered around bicycles. Some of the topics that the teachers researched included personal health and fitness, mass, acceleration, velocity, gear ratios, and how bicycles affect gentrification. I also found some great bicycle-themed resources that I shared with the group.

Huge props to Karen Overton and Recycle-a-Bicycle who essentially brought a bike shop to Stuyvesant High School for the three-day workshop.

It was an awesome experience. I got to merge my love for bicycles and bicycle mechanics with teaching, mathematics, and STEM. Plus, I meant some inspiring, like-minded teachers. It feels like the start of something bigger.

 

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Quick Key

To help me collect data, I’ve been using a tool for the last couple of months. It’s called Quick Key and it’s used to quickly and easily collect responses from multiple choice questions.

For a long, long time, my school utilized the Apperson Datalink scanner to aid in scoring multiple choice portions of exams. It not only scores exams quickly and efficiently, but its accompanying software provides insightful data analysis that I use to modify my teaching. On the downside, these machines are pricey (almost $1000) and require you to purchase their unique scanning sheets that work only with their machine. Each department in my school had a machine.

Because of my push towards standards-based grading, I find myself giving smaller, bite-size assessments that target fewer concepts. Consequently, I am assessing more frequently and I need the scanning machine at least once a week. The machine was constantly changing hands and I was always running around the building trying to track it down.

I decided that I didn’t want to be a slave to the scanner – and its arbitrary sheets. It’s not sustainable. Especially when we have mobile technology that can perform the same task and provide similar results.

Enter Quick Key.

Quick Key has allowed me to score MC items and analyze my students’ responses in a much more convenient and cost-effective way. Like, free. Hello. You simply set up your classes, print out sheets, and start scanning with your mobile device. (You don’t even need to have wifi or cellular data when scanning.) The interface is pretty clean and easy to use. Plus, it was created and designed by a teacher. Props there too.

Data is synced between my phone and the web, which allows me to download CSV files to use with my standards-based grading spreadsheets.

SBG screenshot

My SBG tracking spreadsheet

That is the big Quick Key buy-in for me: exporting data for use with SBG. As I have mentioned before, SBG has completely changed my teaching and my approach to student learning. At some point, I hope to write in-depth about the specifics of this process and the structure I use.

Though the Quick Key data analysis isn’t as rigorous as what I would get from Datalink, it suffices for my purposes. I sort of wish Quick Key would improve the analysis they provide, but for now, if I need more detailed analytics, its usually requires a simple formula that I can quickly insert.

Data from QK

Sample data analysis from Quick Key

Data from Datalink

Sample data analysis from Datalink

Through all this, I don’t overlook the obvious: MC questions provide minimal insight into what students actually know, especially in math. That being said, my students’ graduation exams still require them to answer a relatively large number of MC items. For that reason alone I feel somewhat obligated to use MC questions on unit exams. Also, when assessing student knowledge via MC questions, I do my best to design them as hinge questions. TMC14 (specifically Nik Doran) formally introduced me to the idea of a hinge question, which are MC questions that are consciously engineered to categorize and target student misconceptions based on their answer. In this way, students responses to MC questions, though less powerful than short response questions, can provide me an intuitive understanding of student abilities.

Quick Key recently introduced a Pro plan ($30/year) that now places limitations on those that sign up for free accounts. Their free plan still offers plenty for the average teacher.

Either way, Quick Key still beats a $1000 scanner + cost of sheets.

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Art & Desmos

Desmos Screenshot cat

Recently I had my precalculus students complete an art project using Desmos. We were finishing up our unit on conic sections. I paired them up and gave them two class days and the weekend to conjure something good. They didn’t disappoint. Props to Bob Loch who helped provide the structure.

Desmos In Class 1Desmos In Class 2Desmos In Class 3

The guidelines were pretty simple:

  • Include at least one of each conic section in your art work
  • Place restrictions on the domain and/or range of at least two of your graphs
  • Solve a system of equations resulting from your graph

The grade was based on the above criteria and how complex their artwork was. I loved this activity because it was so open ended. I usually don’t do a great job allowing my kids to showcase their creative side during class activities. I was impressed with some of the art they managed to create.

Desmos Screenshot Tux Desmos Screenshot mushroom Desmos Screenshot bullseye

I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my increased usage of Desmos this school year. It’s an excellent tool. I literally can’t imagine teaching without it.

 

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Shipwrecked on a deserted island

ship wreck

I spent four days this week on a deserted island with my precalculus students.

It all started when I read this post by Sue Vahattum. If you’re looking for a good exponential modeling activity, I’d check it out. She explains it pretty well on her blog, so I’ll just recap my experiences this past week.

The basic premise is that you present your students with a scenario where the entire class has been shipwrecked on a deserted island. Suddenly there is a murder and one member of the class is the culprit. The class will need to use body temperature and logarithmic equations to determine the time of death and, eventually, the murderer. Here’s the handout I gave my students that frames it all. Of course, you would customize the names to the students in your class.

UPDATE 1/9/17: Improved handouts and storyline are here.

This is the second time I’ve done this activity, and both times it’s been a total hit with the kids. It’s pretty engaging, out of the ordinary, and totally applicable to the curriculum. To get into the spirit of the activity, I come in wearing sandals, shorts and sunglasses during first couple of days and they enjoy that. Besides, we are on a tropical island. They work in groups and I use this whole thing as a culminating activity to my exponential/logarithmic functions unit. The modeling goes beyond just a simple regression, of which a data table can be put into their graphing calculator. What is great here is that the modeling contains a vertical shift in the function, so they have to do the modeling by hand. To tie into their unit assessment, I also will include a problem on their exam relating body temperature and time of death.

The only hiccup this year came on the third day when they couldn’t actually find the murderer! The students overlooked a detail related to the time intervals and we had to conclude on a fourth day. Since I was actually “murdered” on the third day, I couldn’t help them (which was perfect to assess mastery). This actually made it even more dramatic as they had to wait the entire weekend to figure out who the murderer was! Oh, by the way, before the activity I did secretly “choose” a student who could play a good murderer before we started – and he consented to this part in the activity. No one in the class knew who it was beforehand, so when he was revealed at the end he could come up with a little skit as to why he did it. It was a fun touch.

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