STEM Self-Portrait: Days 3 & 4

Sarah and I have decided this whole project-based learning thing is, in fact, a good idea. Over the next few months, we want to reflect more publicly on our second project: the STEM Self-Portrait. We’ll post as much as possible and your feedback, suggestions, and ideas are welcome in the comments below.

(This is post 3 of the series. Here are post 1 and post 2.)

At the end of one of our STEM blocks where students put in almost two hours for their Desmos Art, I said to Sarah that at least three questions came up that I wasn’t sure how to answer. One was about Flora’s piece:

Screenshot 2015-11-20 at 2.48.57 PM.pngSee that little circle in the top left? She wanted to make it move down the screen, like snow. It reminded me of this:


The Koch Snowflake. It’s a fractal, which in general is a sort of geometric figure where a shape is repeated at progressively smaller scales. (More fractal gifs!)

I don’t think there’s a way to make that happen on Desmos, but I showed it to Flora and she did some reading on it. She may pursue it further and she may not. It’s her choice (and Algebraically reproducing fractals is college-level math – I think?).

These are the sort of tangents we can let students off on within Innovation Lab. Over the past few classes, Sarah, in an effort to spark more areas of individual interest, had students work through stations in the lab. They combined various items commonly found at home which yielded some interesting results.

“This is insane!” “That was really interesting!” and “Whoa!” were heard often this week. Some were her demos and the rest were hands-on. Chemoluminescence, electroplating, physical changes, and chemical changes were all on display. The underlying chemistry this quarter is, in part, states of mater, phase changes, etc. The six labs we do in the first few weeks of the project ensure students are exposed to required content. Their choices about which they will use in the physical piece displayed at the Bruce Museum showcase will determine where their ‘deep dive’ in chemistry will be this quarter.

Two of critics’ concerns about project-based learning are (1) math and (2) that all the ‘content’ won’t be ‘covered.’ I noticed today that many Algebra 2 students – grade-level and honors – cannot graph a line given two points. It’s one of the basic exam problems in Algebra 1. Most students learn it for a test and forget it (schools often foster this). If these skills don’t stick with them after a traditional class after hundreds of homework problems, we should be trying something different. Our students are Googling equations of ellipses, how to create asymptotes, and yes, relearning forgotten Algebra.

Here’s the math assignment due before Thanksgiving break next week.

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You’ll notice parent functions, transformations, systems of equations, and a requirement that students justify their reasoning. It’s Algebra 2 (or PreCalc for some), it’s CCSS, and it’s a valid way math can be done.

We, and our students, end the week with more questions than when we started. I am still thinking about graphing fractals. Two months from now, we may finish this project with loose ends. And we cannot predict what students will want to incorporate into their project. But not knowing the outcome is part of the fun. And it’s an invigorating way to spend the day.


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