March STEAM Madness: Jumping ahead to the “M”!

True to form, March 2017 blew in like a lion and out like a lamb . . . but this year, a numbers-minded marsupial bounced into the middle—at The New Century School, anyway!

Math Kangaroo Comes to Baltimore

For the first time in Baltimore, TNCS hosted Math Kangaroo, an International Competition for 1st- through 12-grade students whose mission is to:

  • Encourage students to master their mathematical knowledge.
  • Give them confidence in their ability for comprehending mathematics.
  • Help them understand how mathematics applies in nature’s laws and human activities.
  • Develop their ability to derive pleasure and satisfaction through intellectual life.
  • Show that mathematical education is significant in every part of the world.

imgres“Bringing an international math competition to Baltimore has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said TNCS Co-Founder/Co-Executive Director and former math teacher Jennifer Lawner.

A challenge for Baltimore as more people are choosing to stay and raise their families here is offering appropriate activities for them that are currently available in the county. Organizations like the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Coppermine Fieldhouse have been critical in trying to recruit activities for Baltimore so that we can have our children participate in engaging pursuits and sports leagues, and I think TNCS also helps with extracurricular activities. For me, math competitions are also in the realm of things that Baltimore needs to function as a livable place for families.

Why Math Kangaroo

TNCS hopes to offer the competition annually henceforth, and participation will be open to students from schools city-wide. This first event was somewhat of a trial run, though, before actively recruiting other schools. Ms. Lawner said she wanted to first make sure that the event “lifted students up rather than discouraging them. What we’re trying to do is get children interested in math at early ages so that they might consider intensive study or careers in math-related fields in the future.” Math Kangaroo had the benefit of opening participation in 1st grade, whereas many other math competitions, such as Math Olympiads, start at 4th grade. “They have to be old enough to be able to read the problems and instructions,” explained Ms. Lawner, “but the first and second level exams also offer a lot of visual problems for younger students.”

 

The biggest appeal of Math Kangaroo, however, is the approach to doing math. For example, the problems start easy and get progressively harder so that there will always be enough problems for the individual student to be able to work out and feel successful enough to keep going. “Encountering problems they have never been exposed to before is a really good experience for students,” added Ms. Lawner, “because they have mastered at least enough skills to try, and that’s our primary goal for them—to be motivated to try but be okay with possibly not being able to get it the first time.” TNCS’s regular math curriculum consists of skill-building and problem-solving, but Math Kangaroo provided a fresh kind of problem for students to tackle. Said Ms. Lawner:

The problems are formulated in such a way that, for example, multiplication might be necessary for the solution, but it won’t be immediately obvious that multiplication is required. The student has to fundamentally understand what multiplication accomplishes in order to use it in the context of the problem. It’s not just working through 50 arithmetic problems in a fixed amount of time, as people might imagine. These problems might involve multiple steps, each requiring a mathematical tool that the students have been learning to use, which gets them figuring out how these skills fit into solving the problem. It’s not a repetitive thing; with actual problem-solving, you have to use logic in addition to traditional math skills. The strength of these problems is that they must be understood very deeply to be solved, and that’s really what is being tested.

Math Kangaroo 2015 Sample Questions

In the weeks leading up to the March 16th competition, TNCS teachers worked with students to give them practice breaking down these kinds of problems into discrete steps and organizing their work. Reading the problem carefully is key in problems such as what are listed below. Go on, give it a shot! (Answers are given at the end of the post in case you get stumped.)

Level 1/2

1. Look closely at these four pictures.

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Which figure is missing from one of the pictures?

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Level 3/4

2. Peter has ten balls, numbered from 0 to 9. He gave four of the balls to George and three to Ann. Then each of the three friends multiplied the numbers on their balls. As the result, Peter got 0, George got 72, and Ann got 90. What is the sum of the numbers on the balls that Peter kept for himself?

image010

A) 11               B) 12               C) 13               D) 14              E) 15

Level 5/6

3. Four points lie on a line. The distances between them are, in increasing order: 2, 3, k, 11, 12, 14. What is the value of k?

A) 5                 B) 6                 C) 7                 D) 8                 E) 9

Level 7/8

4. In a group of kangaroos, the two lightest kangaroos weigh 25% of the total weight of the group. The three heaviest kangaroos weigh 60% of the total weight. How many kangaroos are in the group?

A) 6                 B) 7                 C) 8                 D) 15               E) 20

Level 9/10

5. The figure shows seven regions formed by three intersecting circles. A number is written in each region. It is known that the number in any region is equal to the sum of the numbers in all neighboring regions. (We call two regions neighboring if their boundaries have more than one common point.) Two of the numbers are known (see the figure). Which number is written in the central region?

image018

A) 0                 B) – 3               C) 3                 D) – 6               E) 6

Level 11/12

6. When reading the following statements from the left to the right, what is the first statement that is true?

A) C) is true.    B) A) is true.    C) E) is false.   D) B) is false. E) 1 + 1 = 2

Competition Outcomes

Parents may have been skeptical about the idea of their kids sitting down to take what, in effect, was a 90-minute math exam, complete with answer bubbles carefully filled in with no. 2 pencils, especially because this is something they had not been asked to do thus far at TNCS. But, perhaps surprisingly, the students not only handled it without issue, but actually enjoyed it, more importantly, which was the primary goal. It’s easy to speculate on why—it’s a competition—a game—not an anxiety-inducing test, and kids brought lots of positivity to the experience. The challenge is itself motivating, in the same way sports can be for the physical body. Participation, moreover, is optional.
They also received a T-shirt, a pencil, a tattoo, and a certificate of participation for joining in, so those inducements may be responsible for some of the joie de math.  Another reason, explained Ms. Lawner, “is that children all over the world were participating, so our students felt very special to be a part of this. Mathematics is done all over the world, and Math Kangaroo wants to make students aware of that connection and prepare them for that global challenge.”
One thing that is important to bear in mind about this kind of endeavor is that the score, seemingly paradoxically, is largely beside the point. Because the exam is intended to challenge, many students might not score even above 50%, but, said Ms. Lawner, “the value was that students had the opportunity to step out of the curriculum and face new problems, and they got excited about math. Parents and teachers also got excited and participated. I think the experience elevated the students’ interest in mathematics and awareness of mathematics as an international activity—great benefits, to be sure.”
The primary goals of fun and engagement were achieved, if how excited students were both before and after the event are any indication. Some parents even report being given math tests of their children’s devising. Nevertheless, it might seem counterintuitive for a school that does not adopt standardized tests to go in for this kind of math exam. “The baggage that goes along with the word ‘test’ is a lot,” said Ms. Lawner, “when what we’re really trying to do is give students a period of challenge. It’s not so much a test on material that they’ve learned and are supposed to regurgitate as an experience with challenging problems and what they can do with them.” Another kind of “score,” in other words. “How hard they worked was so impressive,” said Ms. Lawner who was on hand to help out during exam administration. “They used all their time and were so determined to do this thing.”
IMG_1440 1
Even so, students who do score well will be rewarded with prizes. There are medals for the top three students in the country, and ribbons for the top three in the state. Other prizes include books, games, gift cards, and toys. Students who demonstrate high achievement over multiple years are eligible for college grants.

The Future of Math Kangaroo at TNCS

Previous Maryland winners seem to cluster in Montgomery county—“It’s time for Baltimore to challenge that!” said Ms. Lawner. With the inaugural event being so well-received by TNCS students, next year, the hope is to offer two public sessions for non-TNCS students in addition to the in-school exam.
There’s so much talent in Baltimore, in our children, and I would just love for them to be encouraged to come show their stuff. Sometimes all children need is to be asked to participate. It might start somebody down a path that could lead to his or her life’s passion. I think it’s really important to encourage math, especially as students get older and the math gets harder. Our goal here is for students to get a really solid foundation in math so that later they’re able to make choices and that multiple future paths are open to them. A career in engineering, for example, requires a certain level of math skill. So, we always want to promote the possibility that you can do it—you can stare at a problem long enough, given the right tools, to find a creative solution.
Answers to Practice Questions
1. D) image005 2. E) 15 3. E) 9 4. A) 6 5. A) 0 6. D) B) is false.

March STEAM Madness Continues: 2017 STEM Fair!

At The New Century School, March means STEM Fair time! When STEM instructor Dan McGonigal joined TNCS back in 2014 (see post), what had been the annual Science Fair evolved into its current incarnation.

STEM Fair: Where Do They Get All That Energy?

This year, the theme was, indeed, Energy, and the boundaries were expanded so that students could choose to do a traditional experiment, demonstrate a scientific concept, or do an engineering project:

  • To do an experiment, students made a hypothesis and tested it, adhering rigorously to study design (i.e., they followed the Scientific Method).
  • To do a demonstration, the student demonstrated a physical principle related to energy (an example is what makes ice packs work). This required more research than the other types of projects.
  • To do an engineering project, students could engineer a solution to a problem or improve an existing technology and report on the engineering design process.

Offering more possibilities of types of projects, explained Mr. McGonigal, was so that students were able to adapt as they went along and “find a way to make it work.” In some cases, the type of project morphed as the student worked, resulting in some overlap—some experiments featured some demonstration elements and vice versa, for example. “It’s not really about perfection or getting everything precisely right,” he added. “There might be errors, there might be problems, it might not be beautiful—that’s the whole process of learning, to get better by doing these projects and presentations and to get thinking scientifically.” It was “controlled chaos”

They could come up with the idea for their project on their own, or they could derive inspiration from LiveBinders, ScienceBuddies, or another student-friendly website so long as the topic fulfilled two very important criteria: to be “feasible and interesting.” The work of doing the projects was completed in class, and most materials were obtained at school because Mr. McGonigal wanted this endeavor to be as student-driven (and hassle-free for parents) as possible. Apart from his ongoing guidance plus some parent volunteer support during class time, students did their own work, from choosing a topic, to testing their ideas, to reporting on the results. Although it created a bit of “controlled chaos,” in the classroom, “I am a big believer that children need to do their own work and learn from that experience,” said Mr. McGonigal.

tncs-stem-fair-2017

 Expectations were a little different for each type of project and for grade level. The 2nd- and 3rd-graders worked with a peer on the same topic, but each created his or her own display. The 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders worked completely independently. A third cohort of 1st- and 2nd-graders worked in groups on projects. Grading rubrics also differed, corresponding to grade level and type of project (experiment, demonstration, engineering).

The Projects!

Although Winter Storm Stella interrupted the scheduled date of the actual presentations, the STEM Fair proceeded on three separate days (you’ll note lots of red clothing on Math Kangaroo Competition Day as well as lots of green on St. Patrick’s Day), starting with the oldest group of students. Parents were instructed to circulate and ask questions: “The students have been practicing presenting to each other and to younger TNCS students so that they are experts in their fields,” said Mr. McGonigal.

Projects included “How to Make a Plane Invisible to Radar” in which the student tested uncontrolled variables against controlled variables in true experimental fashion involving flashlights, special equipment, and black paint. “I noticed the sleek design of the world’s fastest plane and wondered if the design had something to do with what made it so stealthy,” he said during a presentation to parents. “I tested three shapes made out of paper inside a black box to see which would refract the least lux and be less visible to radar: a cylinder, a U shape, and a W shape, and my hypothesis was correct—the cylinder refracted the least lux.”

The best part of this very sophisticated investigation? It just made him even more curious. “Next I want to find out if the color of the designs would necessarily impact the lux bouncing off. Why do they always use black? What would happen with white, or green, or red?” he asked.

“How to Make a Solar Oven” was a very popular project among all three divisions, chosen by multiple students to take on. Not only was the energy theme (and heat transfer, another recently explored STEM theme) addressed, but solar ovens have the potential to reduce hunger in developing countries as well as cook using renewable, sustainable energy, aspects that 21st-century-minded TNCS students evidently found very appealing. (Probably equally appealing was the promise of taking their ovens home to use for making s’mores and melting butter for popcorn, other extremely valuable features!)

Another popular project also incorporated solar power: “Bristle Bots” involved constructing an artistic robot. (And getting to don goggles and gloves like any card-carrying scientist should.)

But most students ventured out into uncharted territory and produced some very cool stuff. This slide show is captioned to help explain some of the work.

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“I’m very proud of the work they produced. They worked really hard over the last 2 weeks, and they all became good problem solvers. It’s reflected on their project displays,” said Mr. McGonigal. Want to read about past years’ projects? Click for posts from 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Yay science!

tncs-stem-fair-2017

Two TNCS Elementary Teachers Lead Education Conference in China!

At the end of October, The New Century School elementary teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal traveled to Beijing, China to present at the International Cooperation Project for RiSE Teachers. The actual conference was held in a town that was a 2-hour drive outside of the city.

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Our fearless conference leaders!

Mr. McGonigal explained that TNCS Co-Founders approached him and Ms. Stasch with the idea to lead a 3-day conference in China involving extensive educational professional development at the “RiSE Center,” which is an afterschool and weekend educational program. “In China, afterschool and weekend programs does not have the same meaning. There, such programs mean extensive education, so RiSE takes advantage of that time and immerses students in the English language by teaching all of their subjects in English. Very much like what we are doing at TNCS—teaching core content in another language. So they want to Americanize their approach to get students more engaged, incorporating more hands-on activities. They wanted to see how we handle classroom structure and appealing to different learners,” he said.

For some background, in China, younger students have about 6 hours additional learning each week; older students have about 8. This is on top of an already 10-hour school day, so on the 2 days a week the students attend the RiSE Centers, their school day stretches to 12 hours. They will also spend 4 to 6 hours there in weekends.

Many of the approximately 100 conference attendees were teaching at the pre-Kindergarten level and looking for tools for English language learning. “So, we had to adapt some of the materials we had prepared in advance to better target their needs,” said Ms. Stasch. “Yes, they were especially excited about the Language Arts aspects,” agreed Mr. McGonigal.

Ms Stasch provided this overview:

With one exception, the RiSE teachers were native Chinese but had all taught English abroad and spoke English very well—no translators were needed. They were all so excited and really enjoyed the opportunity we were bringing to them. Some of the STEM-teaching concepts were different for them and a little harder to grasp, but they were  eager to implement a lot of our teaching recommendations in their classrooms. Their curriculum is already designed, and they do not have a lot of say in that matter, but some of the founders and top members of the program were participating and were listening very carefully to our presentations. They seemed amenable to restructuring some of the curriculum to incorporate more STEM and maybe the Daily 5, for example.

The teachers were trying to convey two primary concepts: the value of independent learning and how to better manage the classroom. Their presentations are available for download at the end of this post.

Said Mr. McGonigal:

What they kept coming back to in their questions was how to get and keep students engaged. As part of their culture, Chinese students are naturally reserved and maybe a little shy, so getting them to actively participate can be a bit of a struggle. Instructors also wanted suggestions on how to help their students understand that answers are not always black and white and that they do not always have to be ‘right,’ or perfect per se. But they are scared that if they share something in class that they will be wrong and will be shunned for it.

“Yes,” agreed Ms. Stasch, “they seem to have a very matter-of-fact way of thinking. Rather than explore ideas, they want to know what is the correct answer because they know they will later be tested on it. Even the RiSE teachers had some trouble understanding how to teach using questions and open-ended lines of inquiry. They were bewildered that we were giving them questions instead of answers!”

“But we helped them see that if students ask their own questions, they are in charge of their own learning and will get them thinking on their own,” said Mr. McGonigal. He continued:

Another recurring topic was behavior management. We tried to instill in them the idea that these are practices that help manage behavior, too, because if you get students asking questions they are more focused and there are naturally fewer behavior problems as a result. In everything we did, we tried to incorporate why independent learning is so valuable. Using a stations approach instead of whole class is also helpful because you’re more able to meet students at their particular levels and help them individually, which also helps reduce behavior problems.

Believe it or not, even given the respect for teachers and for the classroom ingrained in students since before kindergarten, they do “act up” from time to time. Ms Stasch explained that, “this might be because the RiSE teachers tend to be newer teachers with less experience and therefore less-developed classroom management skills.” Another factor is that because this is an afterschool and weekend program, the kids probably feel more relaxed than they would in regular day school, where the environment is more rigid (see TNCS Visits Schools in China!)

tncs-elementary-teachers-lead-conference-in-china

RiSE students

“We saw this when we did our demo lessons,” said Mr. McGonigal. “The kids were very loose and relaxed with their teachers. It was similar to an America classroom. But the minute we started teaching , they became very attentive, very minds on. Part of this might be because we were speaking in English so they had to pay close attention in order to understand what we were saying. Some other reasons could be that we were new faces to them and also that there were cameras in the room. But I think behavior is always relative. What is considered a behavior problem there might not be here.”

When asked about their overall impressions of the trip, Mr. McGonigal replied, “One of the things that really hit home with me is that the teachers there are amazingly dedicated. We were doing this professional development with them until 5:30 pm, and then they were also given homework to complete before the next day’s session. They would often be up until midnight working with their teammates.”

Ms. Stasch agreed: “And they ask lots and lots of questions. They really needed to know that they were headed in the right direction and are eager to please. They expected assessments the next morning and were very excited about those. They charted the assessments and then had a cumulative assessment at the end. We really adjusted our process to add these assessments and to allow more time for questions.”

Mr. McGonigal explained the rationale for the cumulative assessment: “They did this to determine who was the valedictorian. They also wanted a points system for in-class work. Everybody earned their certificates at the end!”

Although with 3 days for their conference, 1 day for teacher interviews, and 1 day for the demo lesson, it sounds like an all-work, no-play trip, they actually also had 2 1/2 days for sightseeing and visited the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City. They loved the food and tried lots of unfamiliar dishes. (However, eating fine-boned fish with  chopsticks proved a challenge.) “It was a really great experience,” said Kiley. “For both of us it was the first time to take on a leadership role in professional development, and we both learned a lot,” said Dan.

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For their presentations, please download the following powerpoints:

TNCS Students Get Technical!

tncs-upper-elementary-visit-digital-harborOn November 16th, elementary and middle school students of The New Century School took a field trip to a very special spot in Baltimore City. Digital Harbor Tech Center is a self-described “youth makerspace providing youth with an opportunity to be creative and productive.”

Under the aegis of The Digital Harbor Foundation, the Tech Center opened in 2013, taking over a defunct recreation building on Light St. The next year, they “launched the Center of Excellence to train others how to incorporate making into their own learning environments.” Just 3 years after opening their doors, the Tech Center estimates that, “in 2016, [they] will reach 2000+ students in grades 1-12 from 90 Baltimore-area schools.” They operate on a “pay-what-you-can” basis to allow all interested kids to be able to participate as well as offering free field trips to learn about 3D printing, such as what TNCS students attended last week.

During their 3-hour session in the makerspace, they were first introduced to the Digital Harbor Foundation and the concept behind the Tech Center—and instructed to “look, listen, and learn.” There was definitely lots to look at and lots to learn! Next, for the bulk of the session, they learned and practiced the basics of 3D design, which they ultimately put to use in the execution of their very own custom 3D-printed keychains, the primary endpoint of the session.

To learn 3D design basics, they first discussed 2D design, which takes place on a grid composed of both an x and a y axis, and then added the “z axis” to bring in the third dimension. From there, it was onto a supercool free computer application called “Tinkercad,” which is exactly what it sounds like—tinkering with engineering! The program makes engineering and design accessible to anyone with three simple steps:

  1. Place: Shapes are basic building blocks of Tinkercad. A shape can add or remove material. Import your own, or work with existing shapes.
  2. Adjust: Move, rotate and adjust shapes freely in space. Use tools like the ruler to input exact dimensions.
  3. Combine: Group together a set of shapes to create models as detailed as you want.

 

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TNCS students were asked to complete a set of five fun, interactive tutorials in Tinkercad, each building on the last in terms of skills acquired. When a task was successfully performed, a shower of confetti burst out of the completed design to let users know that module was complete, and they could move on to the next. Immersed was also up to the task, folks, as you can see in the slideshow below.

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TNCS elementary students thoroughly enjoyed their time at the Tech Center and picked up new skills like the innate tinkerers they are. If the concept of “makerspace” is ringing a bell, that may be because last week’s post on the Ozone Snack Bar discussed how that newly opened space might evolve as a makerspace. STEM teacher Dan McGonigal said, “The Tech Center has been on our radar for a while now, and we’ve been wanting to explore 3D printing. Now that we have the 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade cohort, we can really do some cool things in engineering. The school founders are very supportive of this idea. We have even discussed the possibility of getting a 3D printer here, but with that being so cost-prohibitive, we wanted to introduce the students first and see how it goes—and it went very well.”

With the fourth quarter of the 2016–2017 school year slated for a Technology and Innovation Unit, expect to hear more about the makerspace idea. Mr. McGonigal hinted that recreating some Rube Goldberg machines might even be in the offing. Meanwhile, here are the fruits of TNCS students’ and other area students’ labor at Digital Harbor Tech Center.

TNCS Science Fair 2016: It All Starts with a Good Question!

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Fist bump for science!

The annual Science Fair is always a highly anticipated event at The New Century School, and 2016 was no different! Last week, parents and students came out in droves to see what science experiments TNCS 2nd- through 5th-graders undertook and what they learned from their experimentation.

Headed up for the second year by STEM teacher Dan McGonigal, this year’s Science Fair had a slightly different focus than last year’s (read about Science Fair 2015 here). Explains Mr. McGonigal:

This year we focused on the Scientific Method as opposed to the Engineering Design Process like last year. The students selected their own testable question related to Physical Science. We focused on creating tests that used manipulated variables versus creating a demonstration of a science concept. For example, instead of showing what happens when you combine baking soda and vinegar, a predictable reaction, I encouraged students to compare the amount of gas released by baking soda and vinegar to Alka-Seltzer and water. Or, instead of building a potato clock, students were asked to compare the volts of different produce to see which would produce the greatest amount of voltage. This helps improve instruction to more closely match how scientists actually work.
Mr. McGonigal also shared a “prezi” to give parents and other Science Fair attendees a closer look into how he framed this year’s endeavors. An important point is that students were encouraged to follow their own interests rather than replicate standard Science Fair experiments. The thrust was to start with a question then follow what various avenues that question presented, always maintaining a logical next-step approach.
“We worked hard on our projects,” said Mr. McGonigal, “and the projects were 100% representative of the students’ own work. I did not correct, edit, or change the student’s work in any way, but they were guided to stay focused on their scientific thinking and reminded of certain measures to help create accurate, neat work, that would be valid. The instructional focus was on the thinking, not necessarily the content related to their projects.”

As always, Mr. McGonigal’s enthusiasm for science adds a special touch. “The results and feedback were very positive about the student’s work. We had a lot parents show up to support their student’s science education!”he said. One such parent (and TNCS Co-Founder), Jennifer Lawner, said, “Mr. McGonigal give a wonderful presentation to parents about the goals of the science fair.  In particular he talked about how he did not do their work for them. For example, the write-ups are imperfect—he reminded them of the rules of punctuation and left them to write the work themselves. The students came up with testable questions, procedures for testing the questions, and reported on their data. There were flaws, but the date it was reported accurately. I was really impressed!”

TNCS lower elementary students also got a chance to see the projects and were given first-hand explanations by the older students. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the K/1st Science Fair!)

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And the exploration will not end with the folding up of the three-paneled cardboard displays. As a result of their self-led science journeys, students will continue asking themselves, “What did I learn? What do I still wonder about?” for months to come.