Friday, March 28, 2008

Lottie Mosher: Bridge-Building with Toothpicks and Real-World Math

Jennifer Prescott in Scholastic Instructor profiles four math teachers across the country who are "standouts" in math instruction, teaching math in ways that excite students and connect math to the real world. One of these standouts is Lottie Mosher in Virginia. Her bridge-building project answers the perpetual "Do I really need math?" whine we often hear from bored middle-schoolers.

Mosher teaches sixth-grade math at Spring Elementary School in Fairfax. She created the bridge-building project a few years ago to show students "how math affects our lives." Students work in teams to create a bridge using glue, toothpicks and other simple materials. Mosher provides the parameters, such as height minimums, and requires that students use a computer program to scale their bridge design. Students must also adhere to a budget. Each student in a team takes on a particular role that parallels one in real life, like architect, carpenter, accountant or project director. The final product, the bridge, has to pass certain strength tests to be acceptable.

When Mosher taught at Mantua Elementary School, she used a distance-learning lab at the school to connect students with other classes overseas who were also involved in bridge-building projects. She was also able to digitally link students with civil engineers in New York to discuss students' projects and bridges. That contact with engineers was a big boost for the students, Mosher added.

Mosher believes that student motivation can be created with real-world problems and by keeping repetitive work like drills to a bare minimum: "If students can do three of the same type of problem, that's enough." Her advice for a large group project includes helping group members resolve conflicts and get along as they work, making the roles students need to adopt clear, and helping each student find a role he or she would like to do and has the ability, skills and interest to do so that every student experiences some kind of success during the project. Mostly, Mosher believes in looking at the larger picture in math instruction: "What are the major things students need to know? They have to develop number sense; think critically; make connections; collect, understand, and analyze data; see geometric shapes in space and work with them; and so on. Mathematics is so much more than just computation."

SOURCE: "We Love Math!" 2008
photo courtesy of Mai Le, used under this Creative Commons license

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