Friday, 6 December 2013

Inspiring Mathematical Applications: Randall Munroe answers all

As a Maths teacher, I'm guessing you'll already be familiar with Randall's awesomely nerdy web-comic, xkcd:

Maybe you're also aware of his "What If?" site. If you're not, I'd like to introduce you to it. Each week Randall Munroe, a physicist and former NASA employee, answers question that people post to him online. Though the questions are usually strange ("How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?") and sometimes ridiculous ("If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?"), Randall tries to answer them as accurately as he can, backing up his statements with citations and calculations.

Though, the maths sometimes gets quite complex, the funny topics and humourous pictures combine to make it much more approachable than it otherwise would be.

I love to read them just for myself, but I've also started bringing them in to some of my classes. Last week I found lots of ideas and resources for improving literacy in maths. This week, one of the ideas I tried was about scaffolding the problem, specifically splitting a question in to its important parts (The actual question, the information given, the constraints, what calculations are needed, etc.). As a plenary I asked them to guess the answer to, "Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?", then to read through the What If? article about it, whilst highlighting the different components of the text (The question, the information gathered from research, the calculations, the constraints, etc.).

It worked very well, and the students really saw the link between the work they'd just done and the work done in the article. I'm hoping that this link will help them to feel empowered (because the techniques they are using work on much more complicated questions) rather than disenchanted by the complexity of the maths.