Subject Leadership Diary
The countdown to 0.5-term has begun. Somehow decimals just don’t have the same ring as fractions!
In the last fortnight, collaborating together as a faculty, we have been doing quite a bit of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) work. This has been themed around Brunel and his tremendous achievements of the early 19th century. This Isambard Kingdom Brunel video makes a nice introduction to any work related to Brunel. We are building on the ‘new’ KS3 curriculum, taking this into some KS4 work. When I visited the Brunel archive at Bristol University library back in September to see what they had, I discovered his Clifton Suspension Bridge calculations – which provided me with some applications of mathematics that are very useful. There are examples of the application of simultaneous equations, Pythagoras’ Theorem, area calculations involving circles and some integration.
We have been working with bridge mathematics. The Clifton Suspension Bridge provides us with inspiration – we suspend a chain (easily obtainable from hardware stores in a variety of types) between two supports, measuring the distance horizontally and vertically so that we can insert data into suitable graph-plotting software.
Then we fit an equation to the scatterplot. For younger students we look at a quadratic fit, older students use the basic catenary curve, y=cosh(x) – although this is beyond secondary level, students can be very motivated by being challenged to work at the frontiers of their knowledge. They see where the catenary appears on the graph page then think about how they can transform it to fit the scatterplot. This is good revision for Y11 reminding them that f(x – k) translates a curve k units to the right, f(x) + k translates k units up and f(kx) stretches by a factor 1/k in the horizontal sense.
The work has also allowed us to use plenty of ICT. We have used Texas Instruments nspire handheld technology through the wireless Navigator system. This allows the teacher to send files and short questions instantaneously to all the class and collect their answers. The fact that all students’ screens can be seen on the IWB allows me to pinpoint any problems, or to bring a student’s good work to the attention of others. Students who wish to use other ICT such as Autograph, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Cabri, or Geogebra can do so. This of course can create some unease with teachers who might not be familiar with all the software available, but generally our younger digital natives cope far better than we sometimes imagine! It took me a while to realise I do not have to be an expert in all software since there always seems to be someone in the class who can sort out any unforeseen challenges.
We have also used a temperature probe to explore what happens when you mix salt with ice. Full lesson notes can be downloaded from Nspiring Learning. It is fascinating to see the temperature of the water in which ice and salt have been mixed drop to -18°C, and then get no lower. This is of course why freezers bring the temperature down to -18°C because some foods contain salt and so need to be brought down to this temperature to ensure that they are properly frozen. STEM work is very informative as well as interesting!
How do we find time to fit in this work? This is a question that we have asked ourselves from time to time because we know that we have a responsibility to our students and our school to obtain the best results possible – and work like this means less time for bookwork. Well, we reckon that this work generates a lot of the understanding needed to succeed in mathematics, and that ‘drill and practice’ needs far less emphasis when students have seen, for example, how graphs are transformed in a practical sense. Our results have risen over the past few years – so we continue to enthuse our students and PGCE students, hoping that we are setting an example for the future by inspiring a love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in them all.