Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of math. The STEM course that I have developed is a science credit and the thing that makes it remarkable is what, and how the students produce. That’s not to say that math does not play an important role in the work that my students do. In fact, in many ways and through many experiments, the language is what makes the challenges authentic more than any other aspect.
First, students are continuously collecting data, which usually is in the form of some number. Whether it is derived from direct observation or some sort of calculation. One example of this is when students calculate the speeds of their pinewood derby cars. The calculation page looks exhausting, but once students understand the need for these calculations, they breeze through it. These numbers are not just busy work to keep them from fooling around. They must compare various runs of test sleds with weight location changes. They compare these numbers through analysis to determine the best placement. Then, they compare that to another previous run experiment. This leads to the next authentic focus that mathematics lends to the class: analysis.
A few years back when students had completed collection of data, I tasked my pupils with finding a pattern in the data. A small group spent time attempting to find a trend in the data collected but were unsuccessful. The following year, one student volunteered to examine the new data set for trends. She brought in ideas and formulas from her math class to help find a pattern. She spent hours running the numbers, even contacting me over the summer to describe new methods of examining the data. We analyze everything we collect and that usually means using mathematical tools that can help find patterns and understand what the data tells us, if anything.
Is Math the Universal Language?
Finally, I want my students to understand that math is the only truly universal language, and the science is no exception to this rule. When studying the universe, its size and the inevitable question of “Are we alone?”, I can integrate that on any level of technological advancement, math will be at the core of communication. When my students study the electromagnetic spectrum, a device used for conveying messages over vast distances, they ask how we could simply say “Hi” to which I reply: It’s going to be hard, but it is going to be math.
Still not sure if math can be authentic in a classroom? Head over to STEM Universe and look for a file upload by me called “Colorado data”. I was lucky enough to collect soil samples from across Colorado and our local university partner, St. Mary’s University, ran the samples to collect percentages of elements present. The information is revealing and shocks students into what really is in the ground they walk on. I can’t think of a more authentic way to engage students, can you?
Want more inspiration on STEM activities? Check out STEM Universe!