Saturday, April 9, 2011

Festival del Sol - Cuckoo for Calculus!

I teach at a project-based school, yet in 12th grade math I rarely do an actual "project." Of course, the meaning of that word is completely subjective and I don't mean to say that I don't do anything interesting or creative in my classes, just that I don't try to stuff content into a contrived project just for its own sake. However, this past week was our annual "Festival del Sol" and each class was expected to exhibit something. I had been racking my brain for a a calculus project all year - one in which students would truly learn the content through the project - and couldn't come up with anything. (The closest I've come to this was the "Great Calculus Challenge" where we dropped a block off the roof of the school - see previous post about that one.)

So, I stopped stressing out about it and figured that I'd give my kids a "break" for a couple of weeks with the following project: Pick any concept or problem that you've enjoyed this year, write a short technical paper explaining the concept / problem, and figure out a cool way to present the concept / problem at Exhibition. At some students' suggestion, we called this project "Cuckoo for Calculus!" (To my surprise, no one volunteered to dress up as the crazy Cocoa Puffs bird.) You can see the actual project handout and specifications for the write-up here.

I rationalized spending two and a half weeks on this by telling myself:

  1. My kids are learning a ton of math this year, most of which they'll probably forget anyway - so why not spend time delving deeper into a topic they enjoyed with the hopes that they might actually remember it?
  2. It's probably worth doing something fun and rejuvenating that might ward off the inevitable post-spring break Senioritis.
I did several projects last year as an 11th grade teacher, yet this was the first one the kids were somewhat excited about - and I'll admit, that felt rad. I think that the student choice element was key, as was the fact that my students are generally motivated and enjoy the class. Many students chose to return to a problem from a past challenge set, which was kind of cool. (My office mate commented that we try to get kids to work on these cool problems, and some of them get 'em and some don't, and then too often the problems just "die" and we never return to them.) You can browse through the challenge sets here.

There were two distinct pieces to this project: the write-up, and the exhibition product. I'll talk about the latter now, because it's easier. Basically, I got some really creative products. Some of my favorites were:

A giant Tower of Hanoi game made of a PVC base and handmade pillow "discs"

The background poster for
the 3-D product rule
A physical representation of the
proof of the 3-D product rule
(from a challenge set)

An artpiece demonstrating the "picture proof" that any triangle constructed
with the diameter of a circle and any point on the circumference is a right triangle.
The piece opens up to a full circle in order to demonstrate the proof, which is
inspired by the famous problem from Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament. 

A giant pop-up book explaining derivative shortcuts with
the help of "Deric the Differentiating Duck"
This one was exceptional - a painstaking model of the notorious
(among my students) Ferris Wheel / Water Cart problem
presented by Goonies and made of pipe cleaners, complete with a
diving ballerina and a Lady Gaga-esque emcee.
Two pirates present the box-method for the chain rule
with nested boxes, ending in a treasure chest with gold coins for
those who are successfully able to take the derivative of a
complicated composite function.
A comic (a la xkcd) presenting the challenge problem involving pirates and a secret
language for communicating the identity of a card using only four other cards.
Pretty fun, huh? I loved seeing the responses of people who came to check out my kids' projects - in general, they were impressed with their creativity and with their understanding of the material. Even though math isn't necessarily the most exhibit-able subject, it's fun for the kids to get to show off their fancy math once in awhile (whether or not they're at a "project-based" school).


  1. Thanks for sharing your challenge sets, I love how the Seniors would puzzle over them. They really enjoyed them and I hope to create some for Algebra.

  2. Hi Allison! Just saw the link to this on facebook. I never got to actually tell you, but I was really impressed by your project. I was so intrigued by the way that math connected to so many things. It really made me want to be a student in your class. :) Enjoy spring break!

  3. How am I just coming upon your blog now? This is such a great idea. And I love all your previous posts! Thank you for sharing your work. It's inspirational!


  4. Sam is right. This blog is pretty much what I wish ThThTh could be, coherent and with more than one picture per post. Consider yourself RSS aggregated.

  5. Thanks everyone - how exciting that other people are actually reading my posts! Sam, Shawn, and Phil: I've been inspired by all of your blogs, so I'm glad that I am able to contribute something back to this awesome online math community. And Brooke: you pretty much are a student in my class, first period every day :-)