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Practical applications in STEAM – Maths

Damian Perry, STEAM Report Editor

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The problem I’ve always had with Mathematics as a subject is that is the most often looked at as an “open to page 23, do every odd exercise. Test on Monday” subject.

Will Maby makes a similar point in his article from last issue.

As with every subject, there’s a massive amount of content to get through in Maths but seeing as the idea of STEAM is to teach extended concepts without worrying about the overcrowded curriculum I want to give you a STEAM-powered lesson plan with a Maths focus. No opening of books, except to check on a concept. No tests, just a working virtual model.

Caveat: I’m not a Maths teacher. But as the Head of Mathematics at St James College always says: Maths is everywhere. So here goes.

Running a school is expensive. Both financially and environmentally. If the administration can save money with our help, they can spend it on STEAM-related stuff. So, we are going to find out who the heater hogs are in the school and then explore the reasons behind the over-use of heating and cooling.

For this, we’re going to need some hardware, some software and loads of data.

For the hardware, I want:

  • some temperature sensors. These are for data collection, and you’ll need one for every room in the school.
  • A data transmitter that can send on the temperatures being output by the sensor.
  • A computer, Arduino, raspberry Pi or other thinking machine that can collect the data and output it in a format we can use.

For the software, we’ll need:

  • Excel
  • Some code stolen from online to run our sensors
  • The computer interface software to write/run your Arduino (or whatever) projects.

And, as an extension:

  • Autodesk Maya
  • Unreal Engine (for the hardcore) OR
  • Minecraft and a server that allows scripting

Educationally, we’re looking at:

  • Level 8-10 Chance – 2-3-step experiments and the language involved in responding to them
  • Year 8-10 Data representation – recording data, range, mean and median

BUT ALSO:

  • Arts/Media: plan, produce and present media in a range of formats and for different purposes and ideas
  • Technology: define and decompose real-world problems, design algorithms, evaluate solutions
  • Science: “contribute to finding solutions to a range of contemporary issues” and
    Physical Sciences: “Energy appears in different forms” including heat, kinetic, light.

Get started: Pre-work:

Get the students to talk about the temperature in the classroom. In the rest of the school. Which rooms are too hot? Which are too cold? Why do they think this is (teacher, technology, age of room etc)? Explain that you want to start a project to properly identify the issues with temperature in the school and then to present some solutions to the administration.

Eventually you’ll get to the point that if we want to make changes we need to identify the status-quo. And that will mean taking measurements and getting opinions. Opinions because “a nice room temperature” is a very subjective thing. Measurements because we need it for the learning.

Collect Data

Hi-Tek:

Set up sensors in several rooms most identified as being temperature issues. You should be able to set up each transmitter for about $5 so you might be able to wrangle the whole school.

There are plenty of books on Arduino projects, but there are also a number of websites run by people who do this for fun. None of this will be easy for a teacher who has never done this before, but YouTube is your friend. Take a look at these project pages from All About Circuits and Instructables. I’m going to do this with the YouTube video attached to All About Circuits because I am a visual learner.

You’ll need to write some code that interprets data coming from these sensors and enters them into a webpage (online, excellent for DigiTech standards) or a .csv (comma separated values) file that can be opened in Excel.

There’s an Excel add-on by Parrallax that takes data from microcontrollers and sends it straight to Excel.

Low-Tek:

Buy some digital thermometers and stick one in each class. Have volunteers enter the temperature data into a Google Spreadsheet at the start of every class for a week. I would add a human level to this experiment and write down who the teacher is and what year level the students are as well (it may be that Mr Perry just likes to cook his students).

Interpret Data

Here’s the hardcore Maths bit. At this point, you would write up a project sheet with a list of challenges to teach your students valid reasons for using the skills you want to teach them in Maths. We want to know which rooms are the hottest and the coldest. We’ll need to know about outliers and means, ranges of data and why an “average” isn’t always the best indicator.

Running the experiment over a number of weeks will give different data to running it over a couple of days. You can talk about sample sizes, or better, get them to talk about sample sizes.

Without making recommendations, they can put together a report analysing and interpreting the data, using charts and graphs, written words and tables of information (rather than raw data).

Present solutions

The most important part of this project is arguably that the work the students do isn’t for nothing. If they put together a recommendation for the school, based on their findings, and it is dumped into an in-tray and then into the circular file, then good luck getting them to put in the extra work again next time.

Make sure that you have the support of the school as part of planning your project. Have a promise from leadership that they will respond in kind to the recommendations given by the students. That is, in a professional manner, addressing points made and outlining concerns with any of the plans.

Students want to be heard. They want some of the power to make change that they know is out there but don’t know how to tap into.

The boys in Environmental Sciences at St James College put together a proposal to install water-measuring devices around the school, and used the data in their class to identify high water use times and locations, which allowed the school to reduce their water usage.

The Visual Communications Architecture and Design class were tasked with creating the plan for the revamp of the quadrangle, including new seating and plants. The school took each design and chose the best, and now the quadrangle has painted down ball courts and plants growing in planters surrounded by seating.

This is the same. If your students can present a solution (sack Mr Perry, or take away his access to the remote control) in a professional manner, then the school should take that solution seriously and respond in a way that the class knows their work was valuable

Extend

OK, this obviously isn’t for everyone, but I just want to mention an exciting extension activity to take this even further. My brother (Dr Justin Perry, CSIRO) was involved in a project where they linked the sensors from each room into a virtual world, modelled in Minecraft. There were sensors in three areas of each room, and the structures within the world were coloured according to the temperatures, as well as reported feelings from the students in the room.

My own students have been recreating their own classroom using AutoDesk Maya, with the goal of porting into the HTC VIVE and walking around inside it. It would be possible to take that temperature data and incorporate it into the classroom as well. It requires the Unreal game engine, or Unity, to create the game world and take in the data, but the visualisation might present answers that the students wouldn’t otherwise see. For example, that all the students in the centre of the room are cold while those on the outside are too hot. The air conditioner is placed in the wrong spot.

Summary

I promised STEAM units for different subjects. I want to show you that there are ways to extend our teaching into STEAM realms instead of just focusing on the subject we’re teaching. I am very aware that the number of teachers out there who could make this sensor-driven activity happen are very few, but I think that the in-class thermometers version is very doable.

Finally, it’s worth trying some of these things out as an extra-curricular activity. Start up a STEAM lunch club, or a Maths Club as we have at St James. Set them the problem. See what they come up with. Steal their ideas and use them in class.

And as always, if you have a brilliant STEAM-powered unit that you want to share, get in touch.


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