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A good day in Math 101

I haven’t blogged much about my experiences with my liberal studies math class. Mostly because it’s been a less than satisfying experience. I don’t feel like I’ve really “clicked” with most of the students at all. I could write all about it, but I’m afraid it would come off sounding like whining on my part.

I’ll do a post mortem at semester’s end.

Still, every once in a while, something happens that gives me hope in the students and the class. Today’s incident actually took place after class. Term projects were due today, and most of the students actually had something to turn in. One student was concerned because he had failed to attach his bibliography. So I told him after class to go get it and bring it to my office.

He returned with a complete paper AND a Rubik’s cube. This was the theme of his project: he had studied the solution to the cube. What made my day was that he wanted to show me how to solve the puzzle.

The cube he brought was solved (i.e., each face was a single color), so he mixed it up, twisting one face, then another, then another, and so on, until the cube was a jumble. We then looked at his paper together, and he showed me how to interpret the rules into moves on the cube. At many points in the demo, he stopped looking at the paper AND he stopped looking at the cube. He had many of the moves down pat.
“Did you play with these things before the project?” I asked. “No,” he said, “but I’ve been doing this a lot since I started.”

He messed up a couple of times and had to start over. But he wasn’t leaving my office until he had shown me he could do it. “Sorry,” he said. “No problem, this is fun,” I replied. While he worked on it, he told me this was the most fun he’d ever had on a school project. He also kept telling me how mathematical the puzzle was.
In the end, he got the puzzle back to its solved configuration. It took him about three tries (you can imagine that a single wrong twist screws up everything). He felt pretty satisfied with himself. As a departing gesture, just to show me some more mathematics, he showed me how if you repeat a twisting pattern again and again, you’ll eventually get back to the original configuration.
I told him this was one of the best experiences I’d had in Math 101. We were both pleased with the result.

I haven’t looked at his complete paper, so it’s hard to say what his project grade will be. But he certainly has a good start.

A postscript: As he was leaving, I told my student about a website that one of our majors had found. It’s a 4-dimensional Rubik’s cube. Check it out here.

One Response to “A good day in Math 101”

  1. Robert Says:

    This is evidence that you’ve done your job — a student has been engaged with a neat idea that he wouldn’t have seen otherwise, thanks to the opportunities you gave him. Pat yourself on the back! And I bet the lack of clicking is probably less of an issue than you think.

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