The Harbour School

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Using the Real World to Teach Math

  • High School
David Pudder, High School STEAM Teacher

"What does physics have to do with math?” This is a question that often comes about in one form or another during the beginning of a unit of study in particle motion with my Pre-Calculus classes here at The Harbour School (THS). It is important to note that I often do not directly answer this question, but point out to students that I will ask them to revisit this issue once we have completed our introductory study of one and two-dimensional motion. In doing so, it is my hope that students can synthesize their learning experiences in the unit to answer this question to point out the overarching connection between math and physics.

Mathematics educators, and many educators in general, are often tasked with having to cover prescribed content along a predetermined timeline. In-class assessments, lesson plans, and activities are often timed to align with high-stakes standardized tests. Aside from a university admissions exam, these types of tests are hurdles that many students often do not see a personal objective for or have a high level of intrinsic motivation to perform well. Hence, we often end up fighting the battle of "teaching to the test" and students end up losing out on many valuable learning experiences that could be afforded to them.

At THS high school, we choose to focus on having authentic learning experiences versus solely preparing students for standardized assessments. While standardized assessments are important, authentic learning experiences contribute to enduring understanding of content material. It is these particular experiences that allow students to make valuable meaning of the information and concepts presented in their classes. This allows them a better chance to make important connections between class content taught across different subject areas in addition to utilizing previously learned knowledge to solve new problems encountered.

I am fortunate to have a graduate study background in both physics education and math education. These studies, in addition to my extensive secondary teaching background, allow me to formulate unique learning experiences in my mathematics classroom. Students are often exposed to new concepts through hands-on learning that incorporates themes of science investigations. Relevant data is gathered, presented, and then analyzed through intensive discussion. 

In our Pre-Calculus unit on introductory particle motion, we will culminate our unit with an investigation on modelling two-dimensional motion through building an egg drop contraption. Students are challenged to design an apparatus that is intended to prevent an egg from breaking after being dropped from the rooftop of The Grove campus. Relevant measurements are taken so that students can then model the flight path of their contraption from rooftop to ground. Students then have the opportunity to reflect on their designs and calculate relevant quantities involved in the motion of their individual creation. 

At The Garden campus, we are fortunate to also have Ms. Kathy Montgomery and Dr. Sam Crickenberger as members of the mathematics department. Both of these teachers also take great care in the planning of their respective lessons to allow for the best possible learning experiences to take place. In addition to offering Common Core standards-based courses, similar to a traditional US curriculum, many mathematics courses are often co-taught with other subject areas. In terms of a science focus, mathematics content is usually paired with marine science content. This involves experiences aboard the Black Dolphin, engaging with the Marine Science Center, and explorations within Hong Kong. 

Mathematics is often stereotypically considered "dull" or "boring," but it really doesn't have to be. Experiential learning is encouraged here at THS and I often take advantage of cross-curricular activities to promote learning within my own mathematics classroom. It is experiences that I have described above that promote meaningful learning so that students can have enduring understanding of content not just for an academic marking period, but for a long time to come.

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