A math teacher gets everything he wants. What could possibly go wrong?

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Blocks and Shadows

Dan Meyer’s post today is lovely as usual, and mentions the tree/shadow problem (we math teachers make right triangles to help us figure things out because the “tree-ness and shadow-ness don’t matter”).

And that reminded me of a problem I gave teachers long ago in SEQUALS-land that (a) worked really well to get at what I was after and (b) could turn into a great modeling activity that could fit in to that first-year course my fellow revolutionaries and I are gradually getting serious about.

Here’s the idea: we want to be able to predict the length of the shadow of a pile of blocks. So we’re going to make piles of blocks and measure the shadows, which will lead us to make a graph, find a function, etc. etc.

The sneaky part is that we’re doing this in a classroom, so to make good shadows we bring in a floor lamp and turn the class lights off.

I will let you noble readers figure out why this messes things up in a really delicious way. Two delicious ways, actually. I’ll give away the second:

Of course we have all done height/shadow problems. But have you tried to measure a shadow lately? You have to make a lot of interesting decisions to measure a shadow; and a shadow from a pile of blocks made from a floor lamp exaggerates the problems, such as where do you measure from—the middle of the stack? The base on the shadow side? Where? And where do you measure to—where the fuzzy part of the shadow begins? Where it ends? And why is it fuzzy anyway?

This is why I love measurement as a strand so much. We always think of it as the weakling among content areas at the secondary level; it doesn’t have the intellectual heft of algebra or functions. But if you look closely (and go beyond the words in the standards) it’s a thing of beauty and (since we’re referencing Dan Meyer) perplexity. I did a chapel talk at Asilomar many Sundays ago in which I said that measurement was invented, inexact, and indirect. I still think that’s true, although as alliterative slogans go it’s hard to remember.

So: try this at home. Use Fathom if you have it. Come up with a function that models the shadow lengths. But don’t just figure it out like a math teacher—get the lamp, stack the blocks, and measure.

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Tim Erickson

Math-science ed freelancer and sometime math and science teacher. Currently working with Concord Consortium on data science education, and with San Francisco Unified on physics curriculum.
View all posts by Tim Erickson

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