"Math" Class

Originally Published in Tuesday News 4/25 & 5/23, 2017
Teaching 21st Century skills is more cultivation than direct instruction, and there really isn’t a textbook on the subject. Carla Huebner, who teaches middle school math, has been integrating coding and circuit building into her Pre-Algebra class and encountered some unexpected results. Her reflection on the unit, which is evolving into a post for her forthcoming blog, is below.

I’ve been working with my 7th grade Pre-Algebra class on circuits and coding recently. The kids had just spent an entire quarter (literally) working on linear equations and I wanted to give them a break. Coding and circuits are built on mathematical principles, and while this exercise is a chance to have some fun, it’s also an out of the box way to front-load some of the principles that the students will learn next. In doing so, I’ve also seen growth in character and 21st Century skills like collaboration, communication, and problem solving, which I did not necessarily expect.

Before coming to VMS, I tutored a homeschool student and we explored circuits and coding using an Arduino programmable microcontroller. I was impressed by how fascinated he was with it and how quickly he picked it up. My hope was that the seventh graders would greet the challenge with the same enthusiasm and that this “break” would help them recharge before diving back into traditional math lessons.

The Arduino is a small computer board with inputs and outputs. It’s basically a conditional logic brain that the kids can program to control a variety of things like lights, speakers, and small motors called servos. It can also receive input from sensors that trigger actions in the code. Our ultimate goal is to build a silly string shooter that is activated by a proximity sensor.

To begin, we went over some basic vocabulary, talked about what “open-source” means, the key elements in a circuit, and other foundational knowledge. I received a lot of questions like “What does this have to do with math?” and “Isn’t this science? Why are we doing this?” My response was simple. I explained that just as important as learning mathematical concepts, is learning HOW to learn–learning how to solve problems, and using the Internet and one’s peers for help rather than relying solely on a teacher, parent, or tutor.

The students worked in small groups and the initial goal was to complete two circuits following a set of plans. The first day was slow going. However, I was blown away by the next few classes. They were flying through the sample circuits, editing code, and finding additional challenges on coding resource websites. They were starting to learn on their own and they were hungry for more.

Once they completed the sample circuits, I tasked them to make a small speaker play Beethoven’s Fifth by programming frequency and timing. I did not tell them how to do it, but rather what I wanted them to do. One student couldn’t find more than the first line of musical notation, so he pulled up a YouTube video and tried to write the melody in the code by ear, changing both the notes and the tempo through adjustments to variables. Nearly all of my students demonstrated newfound capacity to collaborate, share information, and act as peer mentors. And they did so with zeal and enthusiasm that I had not yet seen in many of them.

The biggest takeaway for me happened when we returned back to “regular” math lessons. We needed to review some concepts they had previously learned. Rather than a traditional class-based, guided review, I gave them a packet with problems and answers and told them to give it a try. I wanted to see what they remembered before going into a formal lesson. At that point, I was asked a question I had not heard before: “Mrs. H - can we collaborate?” I answered yes, with the caveat that they needed to be sure everyone in their group understood the concepts. The second question was "What do we do when we finish?" Arduino.

I should note that this is a social group. Many of them have been together since Kindergarten. I often have to help them refocus during a normal class period. After giving them instructions, I sat down and observed while they worked in their groups. The whole class was talking actively, like they often do, but I heard them joking about how to divide fractions, coaching each other, and volunteering to help as soon as someone said “What did I do wrong?”

They are a team now, and they made SURE no one was left behind. They also worked furiously and passionately on understanding the concepts, embracing something that previously was a source of frustration for many.

When we returned back to the Arduino world, I wanted to step up the challenge. Much of the work they had completed was based on plans or designs that they found on the Internet to learn key concepts and gain an understanding of how all the parts work together.

I called the unit “circuit breaking.” The kids had to build a circuit, whatever they liked, and then go to the other side of the room while I “broke” it. The task was then to fix it without looking at the plan, and also explain to me what had been wrong. I expected to hear something like “We had the green wire plugged in to C5, and you moved it to C4,” demonstrating that they had memorized a pattern, but might not necessarily understand the underlying relationship of the parts. Instead I heard, “You switched the positive and negative pins on the Arduino and on the breadboard, and you moved the signal wire.”

The Arduino experience empowered them. They saw a crazy circuit with countless wires, lights, and little pins, and THEY BUILT IT. Something that started off as intimidating became a surmountable challenge, and each challenge they completed seemed to fuel them to try a harder one. As a teacher, I feel more like a facilitator of learning than a lecturer, and it feels great.

"Math" Class Part 2

Originally Published in Tuesday News May 23, 2017
“Class is over, it’s time to clean up go!” says Carla Huebner to a group of seventh graders in the tech lab. It’s seventh period on a Friday, and her instructions are greeted by a series of “Awwws” and “Noooooos.” The energy is extremely high, the students are having fun, and they don’t want to leave. This is math class, but the only numbers to be found are embedded in computer code that is being transmitted to Arduino microcontrollers. You may remember a story about this a few weeks ago? This is the student's’ work coming to fruition.

The Arduinos are attached to servos that are activated by input from a proximity sensor. The servos actuate a cam that was designed and 3D printed in collaboration with Mr. Chambers, and that depresses the nozzle on an aerosol can. The end result: a silly string shooter capable of covering unknowing passersby in brightly colored, festive, plastic string. In the process, the students had the opportunity to deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts related to fractions and proportions, but also honed their problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking skills. Check out the video below, which ever so clearly demonstrates how the integration of math, industrial design, and technology can be educational AND fun.

>> VIDEO: Silly String Shooter

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.