From Why to Barbie Bungee

Back when I started down this ever Shifting road, I learned that good Innovation starts with identifying a WHY.  Why might I want to let students access technology in class?  Why is building a positive classroom culture so important?  I spent the summer thinking about the direction I wanted to take my classes this semester and why I wanted to take them that way.  Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up my thinking pretty well.



I’ve noticed that try as I might, the students I encounter lack a spirit of creativity.  It seems that many times they would prefer to be presented with the answer rather than seek out an answer on their own.  Thinking is difficult.  Many students say they enjoy learning, but that the stress of grades and assessments turn passion into anxiety.


I want to change that.


In May, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Ontario Association of Mathematics Educators (OAME) annual conference in Kingston.  I saw lots of great pedagogy that has been put into action and enjoyed many great conversations about how we can move our practice forward.  I felt empowered to try something new and with the course team at my school, we decided to forge ahead with some project based learning in our Grade 9 Academic Math classes.


The course team decided to start with a week of community building, because nothing pumps the brakes harder on curiosity than a week of prerequisite skills worksheets followed by a quiz.  We had fun and laughed by playing team pictionary on our first day of class.  We did some problem solving activities around the game Skyscrapers.  We debated how tasty a banana really is by playing around with Desmos Pomegraphit.  We ended the week by playing Battleship and talking about situations when plotting points might be important.


All in all, in four days we didn’t do much traditional math but the class was primed for our first project, Barbie Bungee.  This is a project that has made the rounds with math teachers for years.  I had heard about it, but never had the chance to try it with a class of my own.


The premise is simple: tie an elastic around Barbie’s legs, drop her, measure how far she drops, add an elastic and repeat.  Then figure out how many elastics are needed for a very high drop and try to get Barbie as close to the ground as possible.


On Day 1 we started with a Desmos Activity followed by a teaser video of some Barbie’s not having much fun.  




We polled the class with various questions: What do you notice?  What do you wonder?  Doing this allowed us to slowly introduce the project and steer the class into asking the real questions:  What makes the “best” Barbie Bungee?  We ended class by defining the “best” bungee as being the one that takes Barbie as close to the ground as possible without physically touching the ground.


On Day 2 we pushed forward by asking students to sketch what a relationship between the number of elastics and the distance Barbie falls might look like.  This prompted some good discussion on what we expected to happen with our Barbies as we added more elastics.  Then it was time for the actual challenge to start.  Without leaving the classroom, students had to build bungee cords for their dolls so that they could be safely dropped from the top of the doorframe.  It was a bit of a disaster, but the teaching team expected that.  Our students hadn’t really been shown the tools to be successful at this activity.  We were, to borrow a phrase, “creating a headache” so that students would feel the need for the math.





After watching our students attempt this initial challenge with no real plans, we pushed pause on Day 3 and did a more formal type of lesson.  We reminded our students about Scatter Plots, and discussed some ways they could use this concept to help them with their Barbies.


No Barbies were harmed...
Given this knowledge, we started Day 4 with a better plan.  Students knew to start small, measure the distance Barbie falls with one band, then two bands, then three and try to find a pattern.  We wanted our students predicting, given that we had not yet told them the real height of our Bungee Jump.  By the end of the period all groups were ready to test their Barbies and were told that the drop on the last day of this activity would be 520cm, or 5.2 meters, or two stories.


Day 5 was the big day, a time to test our students calculations in the real world.  There was a lot of excitement and smiles.  Perhaps not surprisingly, there wasn’t much anxiety.  This was, for all intents and purposes, a test of the students work and knowledge over the past week, yet none of our students approached it this way.  They were eager to have their Barbie’s jump, and disappointed when we told them they couldn’t refine their bungee cord after their failure.  And there were many failures.  

The point of this project wasn’t really to build the “best” Barbie Bungee.  The point was to get kids excited about math class, to get them to think about math class, and to let them have some fun in math class.





At the end of the week the students had learned a lot by doing.  They’ve explored scatter plots, collected data, and made informal lines of best fit.  They were assigned to visibly random groups at the beginning of the week and met people they wouldn’t have otherwise worked with.  


Could my class do well on a formal test about scatter plots and lines of best fit?  Probably not at this point in the course, but this is why I reject testing as a sound form of evaluation.  When a student completes a test and fails, what have they learned?  When students dropped their Barbie’s and they hit the floor, what have they learned?  I’d argue that students that have iterated their way through the bungee jump project have learned much more from their own failures than those who fail a test.  From my point of view we brought some joy into our curriculum and lets students learn through a bit of discovery.  It’s working for us so far!

So that’s my why, what’s yours?