Making It Stick - Mobile Learning in Math Class, by Lars Kuelling

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If you’ve ever balanced yourself on a teeter-totter with a heavier (or lighter) friend by moving closer to or farther from the fulcrum in the middle, then you’ve physically applied the equation d1w1 =  d2w2 to balance the movement of forces about a pivot point.

Students in Dr. Betsy Vinton’s Algebra II class had a hands-on opportunity to see the equation at work when given an in-class project designing mobiles in the style of Alexander Calder, who perfected the mobile as art form by utilizing his mathematics background. 

In Dr. Vinton’s class, students were given the charge to “Design a mobile given the fact that for each pivot point d1w1 =  d2w2 ; where d is the distance from the pivot point and w is the weight of the suspended washers.” 

The students spaced themselves around the room, sketching potential designs on the whiteboards and running the numbers through the equation to check that their designs would indeed balance.  Dr. Vinton circulated around the room, and as she did, students would work through their math again or defend their answers. 

In their recent book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel make the case in that “learning is deeper and more durable” when it goes beyond simple application and is accompanied by “a broad variety of approaches.” 

Yes, Dr. Vinton could have taught the formula, assigned some practice sets, and then moved on with a traditional assessment. Instead, by having students wrestle with the physical expression of the equation as made real with fine gauge wire, rods, washers and hot glue, she encouraged students to problem solve by applying the principle in a hands-on exercise, and in the process, the achievement of a perfectly balanced mobile - accompanied by the supporting written equations and design - demonstrated the depth of student mastery and artistry for all to see.

"Around Harley" is a semi-regular blog about topics in education, both in general and as seen around Harley, and is meant to inform and engage faculty around topics that have relevance to the N-12 experience at Harley.


Originally posted October 28, 2016