Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reflection Number Three

Jerome K. Jerome's picture

Reflection Number Three - Projects, Science, and Collaboration in the Mathematics Classroom

One experience in my field placement that caught my attention was the group selection for a project about building a catapult and applying mathematical skills to its construction and analysis. The random selection of several groups of three prompted some students to groan about who they had been selected to work with, prompting Ms. Williams to tell them that their behavior was rude and inconsiderate, explaining how bad it must feel for the people who were the “undesirable” group members. It was a small incident that I think reflects one of the more obvious issues with group projects, which is if the students do not work well together or one “slacks off.” I think it also reflects the challenges that come with addressing gaps that exist between students of different levels of motivation or skill, as I took the incident as simply being a verbal manifestation of thoughts that I had working with people who didn’t do as much work as I did when I was in middle school and early high school. It also seemed to coincide with or reflect the spunk, if I may use that word, of some of the students, who are clearly very confident in their abilities for the most part and can be very sure of their answers when they collaborate with their peers--an enormous part of the classroom experience at my school--and are just generally not afraid of sharing their opinions. There is something very inspiring about that, but it definitely crossed the line when it became an exercise in directly putting down other students, and I think Ms. Williams’ response was the right one (and done with a lot of poise and respect).

It was also interesting though that despite the misgivings of some of the stronger students, everyone engaged the project. Even the most distracted group, who during my next visit was working on their project in the hall, had everyone contribute even though the group’s (and maybe the class’s) most confident student seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, though it seemed like she took on the burden to ensure that the project was “done right.” Even so, the other two students clearly demonstrated their understanding of the concepts involved in the problem I saw them working on. Whatever the logistical problems that inevitably come up with groups, the project seemed to be accomplishing what Ms. Williams intended. Given the fact that it is a math class, it is a little surprising that the project had a focus very similar to that of a science experiment, though the school is very focused on science and STEM more generally from what I can tell. The students seemed to respond well to it though and took on the challenge of applying their skills, which is a departure from the first two classes I sat in on where the topics were taught in a more traditional way: the teacher introduced material and the students then did example problems to help comprehension. It wasn’t as focused on a real-life situation as, say, the teacher from one of our readings who had his students do projects about local housing developments or distortions in the Mercator projection, but the students didn’t seem to mind or invoke the oft-spoken “when will I ever use this in life?” complaint. The catapults they built were also very impressive despite limited supplies (provided by the school), and beyond the very hands-on building they also showed a great deal of skill using the Logger Pro program on their computers, so a lot of different skills were involved. I thought the project was very successful at challenging the students to use different skills while not overwhelming them.

As I have alluded to in this paper, there is a lot of collaborative work in Ms. Williams’ Algebra II classroom. There is also a lot of focus on technology, as every student brings a laptop, they download class Powerpoints and notes, etc. We have talked a lot about agency in this class and I have found that the collaboration has been very good for most of the students’ senses of what they can do, at least from what I can tell. (My conclusions are based on limited experiences, after all.) The aforementioned “spunk” that is present in a lot of their interactions leads students to vigorously defend their answers until they find the mistake in one, which makes for a learning experience for everyone. Two students, Ray and Kimberly, had a particularly heated (but respectful) exchange about their answers for an example problem about systems with three variables, and when Kimberly caught Ray’s mistake, Ray said “oh,” erased his work, and on the next problem did not repeat the mistake. In terms of the technological aspect, its effectiveness seems more varied, as a classroom with thirty-three students and one teacher means checking Tumblr or FaceBook is a click away, though even the kids who did that seemed to only be doing on the side and were otherwise paying attention. I am still unsure how much the computers really add to the mathematics classroom in the traditional sense, but the program for the catapult project was very useful for plotting data points and basically making the whole thing possible.