A Very Good Year

I feel most fortunate when I have a year I get to work on a new great idea in it. This past year has thus been one of good fortune. Some great ideas can appear huge from the start, covering wide swaths of life, and some, at first, can seem small, almost insignificant initially, but on reflection turn out to be consequential and central. This year the great idea was the latter, an idea that appeared tiny and obvious at first glance, but that grows and grows, becoming more valuable with each passing day. Some great ideas seem to be wonderful creative inventions, unique and very, very different, while others are quiet, seemingly so common that we easily miss them. This year’s great idea was again the latter. I would never have expected it to grab hold of our minds and continue to pull us in new directions. And some great ideas seem to spring whole formed, exploding like the Big Bang connecting all sorts of wonderful things together. While others, like this one, play hopscotch in our minds, jumping to and fro with little recognizable pattern to see at first, but eventually linking all sorts of ideas together.

This year’s great idea germinated late last spring as Peter and I were working on what we came to call Classic Story Problems, in particular, the familiar motion, work, and mixture problems found in middle school and high school math textbooks. These problems are painful, that is the only way to describe them, painful to learn and painful to teach. You know the type, “George leaves New York and Martha leave Washington at the same time going at different speeds, where or when will they meet?” Students fight hard to figure them out and many, I would argue most, finally succumb and memorize a formula. Then, of course, when the wording changes, even by a small amount, they are lost again.

In the process of building simple tables in Excel with time in hours in the first (input) column and distance in miles (output) connected by the rule that multiplies time by speed to get distance, we realized that we did not need to fix the input values. Originally, as I was starting to develop spreadsheet lessons, I would let Excel create my input column by putting the first and second input values into the column and then dragging the + to create the column of values. As we got more sophisticated we began to use a rule to create the column, add 1 to the previous number. Well it finally occurred to us that it would be very nice if we could enable students to easily change the input values. Why not make a parameter table with an initial value for the input and an incremental value, and build the input table using a formula and those values? This way we could easily change the start value and the increment value.

Seems such a simple change. But what power. We could enable students to easily solve story problems using a table with discrete values by letting them choose the level of accuracy they needed, developing an understanding of accuracy along with problem solving ability. We could enable them to easily change the domain of any function they choose to graph and quickly and easily control their graphs. We could enable them to zoom in on a particular aspect of a function to study it, or zoom out to picture its form. We could enable them to easily ask “What if…” in a myriad of new ways.

This tiny idea, a parameter control table that enables students to change constants as well as variables has great power. Make the increment smaller and smaller on a quadratic function and you can see that segment of the graph becoming straighter and straighter. Change the initial value and you can watch that straight line change slope as it moves around the parabola. It is almost magical. We don’t need to try to get students to understand limits or secants to picture derivatives, or find a common way to solve story problems. And we are giving them the tools to be flexible problem solving thinkers and explorers.

So as Frank Sinatra sang, “It was a very good year.”

Motion Problems