Category Archives: Baxter

2nd Annual STEM College Fair

college fair

Yesterday afternoon we hosted our second annual STEM College Fair. Last year we had representatives from five colleges and universities, mostly from Maine, come visit our school and talk with our students. This year there were sixteen reps from all over New England, large schools and small, liberal arts and technical, private and public, thanks to our amazing guidance colleagues.

The representatives had an opportunity to tour the building and eat lunch with some of our students, Baxter Ambassadors, who engaged in lively conversations about why they came to Baxter Academy and how they hope to continue their education beyond Baxter. After lunch there were some panel discussions that focused on the application process, what it’s like to study a STEM field at a liberal arts school, the benefits of attending a community college, how project-based learning connects to research, and what studying engineering at college is really about.  During the last hour of school, the fair was up and running with students in grades 9-11 (the 12th graders are pretty well set) roaming from table to table learning about what makes each program unique or special.

I’d like to think that in visiting our school, these reps learned what makes Baxter Academy unique and special.

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The Grant

So we got this grant. It’s big, for us anyway. And it’s a federal grant. We’ve tried for three years to get a federal grant and finally, we got one. We never had any start-up funds. We just jumped in and did it. What did we get this grant for? For everything that we’ve been trying to do and have to do anyway. Nice, right? It is. Really.

My part of the grant is to look at “Anytime, Anywhere” learning, streamline it, organize it, find ways to link our standards to it, and talk to the folks who are looking for ways to track it. This includes our snow day learning, Flex Friday, and alternative course work. And I get to work with a really awesome colleague to do this. Meanwhile, others will be working on dual-enrollment college courses, community service, and internships.

Because learning isn’t confined to the classroom. And learning math doesn’t have to happen in a math classroom from a math teacher. Learning how to write can happen in science class, because they are taught how to write in science class. We are working to be flexible because we are competency based. And that means that we look at evidence of what the student knows, not who the student learned from. Learning is organic and holistic.

So look for future posts about the progress of our Anytime, Anywhere learning curriculum development. It’s going to be quite a ride.

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Classroom arguing

Today and last Thursday the same group of students was arguing with each other about the math they were learning. On Thursday, they stayed about 5 minutes into lunch to finish their argument. It was fun to listen to. They were so engaged and talking math and refining their understanding. Eventually, today, they called me over to hear their arguments and clarify any misunderstandings. Here’s the beginning of the exchange:

S1: “Let me ask you this, Pam …”

S2: “No don’t ask her that, you’ll just confuse her.”

S1: “Let me ask. She’s a teacher with a lot more experience with this stuff than we have. I bet she won’t get confused.”

My students make me smile.

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3.14.16 Pi Day & Learning

Typically, I haven’t liked celebrating Pi Day. Interrupting learning just to eat pie or recite memorized digits just seems like a waste of everyone’s time. But these are the things that students and popular culture associate with Pi Day celebrations. Today is different, though. Today, I have the chance to weave learning into Pi Day.

It’s the last week of the term, so my 3D geometry students are working on final projects. I don’t feel too badly interrupting them to have them wonder a bit about the weirdness of pi. There are lots of ideas about this in James Tanton’s Weird Ways to Work with Pi, which I was happy to find. I was wondering what “pi” would look like for regular polygons like a triangle, or a square, or an octagon. Could we even talk about pi for polygons? And then I happened upon Tanton’s book. So today, I’m asking my geometry students to consider the question, “What does pi look like for regular polygons?”

I also have a class called “Social Decision Making.” It’s about voting methods, fair division, and a bit of game theory. So, in the only class where sharing a pie among 10 people is a relevant mathematical activity, we’re going to divide a pie, fairly, for all of us. Depending on the number of students in class, we might even just use parallel cuts, to make it interesting.

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Dan Meyer, Girl Scout Cookies, and a Nissan in the driveway

A couple of days ago, Dan Meyer posted this new 3-Act problem about boxes of Girl Scout cookies being packed into the back of a Nissan Rogue. It came at exactly the right time for my 3D Geometry class. We’re entering the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been posing review problems each day to help them remember all of the topics we’ve tackled. As I was considering the plan for Wednesday, one dropped right into my inbox.

We watched the Act 1 video. I asked for questions:

  • How many boxes are there?
  • How many different shapes?
  • How many cookies?
  • How much do all those boxes weigh?
  • How much would that cost?
  • Could they have fit more?
  • Could they have packed them more efficiently?

I asked for estimates, including guesses that they thought were too low and too high: The too low & too high estimates ranged from 1 to 1,000,000 and the guesses ranged from 206-3000.

I asked for the information they would need:

  • How big are the boxes?
  • What is the cargo space?
  • How much do the boxes weigh?
  • What’s the maximum payload?

I knew that Dan would provide some of this information in Act 2, measuring the roguebut my students are very inquisitive and quite resourceful. They wanted to figure these things out for themselves. And as luck would have it, our principal drives a Nissan Rogue. We also had Girl Scout cookie experts who were quick to point out that not all cookie boxes are created equally. We sent a group out to measure the cargo space while two other groups worked on the problems of cookie box sizes, cookie box weights, and Rogue payload capacity.

In researching the payload, the group found that Nissan noted that the Rogue had a cargo capacity of 32 cubic feet, not the 39.3 cubic feet noted in the video. Guess we need to work on those research skills – clearly. The payload capacity was about 1,000 lbs.

Measured cargo space came out to be about 25.8 cubic feet (or approximately 44,600 cubic inches).

The group researching the cookie boxes decided to take a sample and find some average measurements. As a result, our boxes measured 2″ x 7.2″ x 3.5″ and weighed an average of 9.3 oz (or 0.58 lbs).

Final calculations showed that the Nissan we measured could fit about 885 boxes, which would weigh a little more than 500 lbs. But that was a pure volume calculation and the students knew from previous packing problems that we had done, that the reality would be less than that, and that there would be empty space.

Finally, we watched Act 3 (this is the Nissan version). We noted that the Rogue in the video was a different model year than the one that we measured. The measuring team also noted that the Rogue in the driveway had a floor at the level of the lift gate – it didn’t have the same depth as the model in the video.

So thanks, Dan, for the great set-up and giving my students the opportunity to revisit some of the work they’d done earlier in the term.

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Working Together

onegoodthing

Like all schools, my school has committees. And, like all schools, my school has a student government. But, unlike other schools, our student government is a single body: the Student Senate, comprised of one representative from each advisory. This year, the Student Senate split into subcommittees to align themselves with the faculty standing committees. I’m on the Academics Committee – the group charged with looking at curriculum & standards and how they are aligned. On Monday, we met with the Senate subcommittee during lunch to discuss different ways that students can demonstrate what they’ve learned. We talked about the possibility of students creating portfolios and presenting their portfolios to teachers in a particular learning area to have them assess which standards the student has met, and to what level. So, while the teachers keep working on tightening up our standards & curriculum (we’re halfway through year three), our students are developing a portfolio review process.

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Pentathlon Day!

I’ve written about Flex Friday before. It’s the day of the week when we don’t have classes. Instead, students work on their own long-term projects. It’s our attempt to teach them those valuable, but intangible skills around autonomy: time management, self-direction, interpersonal relationships, problem solving, resilience, and so on. It’s been going fairly well, but we felt that we could improve the experience. So this year we designed an experience to orient our 9th graders to what Flex Friday is all about. It was called the Flex Friday Pentathlon.

How it Worked

Our 9th graders were randomly assigned to 11 teams of 8-10 students. Each team was presented with five challenges:

  • Tug of War robot Challenge
  • Autonomous Robot Maze Challenge
  • Scientific Inquiry of Mysterious Liquids
  • Media Madness
  • Art of the Pitch

Each team was to decide how many of the challenges to tackle and who was to work on which challenge. Teams were allowed to work on as many of the five challenges as they wanted, and they were encouraged to tackle at least two of them.

What Happened Next

Teams were assigned on our the first Friday of school, September 11, and were introduced to the Pentathlon concept and the specific challenges. They spent the next couple of Fridays deciding which challenges to work on and creating their Gantt charts to help with organization and planning.

Robot-based teams chomped at the bit for their parts so they could start building – something. Young scientists began researching the types of tests they could perform to distinguish one liquid from another. Media types brainstormed the type of message they could produce with 1 minute of video. No one wanted to pitch anything.

Teams worked together – or they didn’t. Each team had a project manager and struggled with leadership, to some extent. Some of the upperclass students observed difficulties and stepped in to mentor the leaders. We (the adults) created afternoon workshops about how to research, edit video, design and build stuff, at the request of the 9th graders, to help them out.

The Final Friday

Their last day to work together as a team was November 20, two weeks before Pentathlon Day. Some teams were on track, while others were falling apart. My Media Madness team finally filmed their story. Now they had two weeks to edit it into a final cut. My Mysterious Liquids team had done all the research they could – they tested liquids using probeware, they researched characteristics, they asked for test liquids and analyzed them. They were ready. I also had two robot teams – one Tug of War and one Maze Runner. The tug of war team was falling apart, and there wasn’t anything that I could do to help them. There was plenty of frustration and blame to go around. One member of the team was absent. The other two were frantically trying to make a working robot.

On the Maze Runner team, it was all about programming. In all, there were three Maze Runners across all the teams. They were struggling with the programming. Two teams joined forces to try to learn together and help each other out. They shared code. They taught each other how to program an arduino, the processor that ran the robot. Just before lunch I heard, “We quit!” It wasn’t working. They had poured 10 weeks into the thing and couldn’t get it to do what they wanted. They were spent. I told them to take the afternoon off (there were other activities available). They went to lunch, and when they returned they asked if they could keep working on the robot – they’d had an idea!

Pentathlon Day, December 4

The Pentathlon ran from 10:30 until 1:30 on Friday, December 4. We all (9th graders and their project advisors) arrived at the Maine Irish Heritage Center (which feels like our partner campus – we can’t fit the school in our own space anymore) to witness the results of our 12 weeks of hard work. There were robots tugging war (eventually), robots running a maze (eventually), minutes of media madness, scientists investigating mysterious liquids, and, eventually, one pitch. It was a day where I worried that students would not have enough to keep them occupied – and they did run out of steam as the day wore on – but, overall, they rose to the challenge.

So, What Happened?

My Maze Runner team was up first, with no other events happening, so I was able to catch them on video. It was about what they had expected: They were stumped at how to program the robot to make a decision about turning left or turning right. As a result, they programmed it to always turn right. Here’s what happened:

I was on duty at the Tug of War Robot station. There were 7 robots at the beginning of the day. The first two robots to battle didn’t do much once the power switches were thrown. That caused the other teams to rethink about what they had created. We had a series of non-battles. In the meantime, that Maze Runner team from the video asked if they could enter their robot in the tug of war challenge. They were given permission to adapt their robot, but it had to take its power the same way that the other robots did – meaning that they had to redesign the power supply (from a 9 volt battery to direct input) and reprogram the robot. I have to say that I was impressed with what they accomplished in such a short amount of time. They were able to field a tug of war robot that did pretty well against the robots that didn’t move – but not so well against those that did move. After all, it wasn’t designed to pull anything. Here’s what happened in a rematch (that’s the little Maze Runner at the top of the frame):

Was it Worth it?

I mean, was it worth segregating the 9th graders from the rest of the school during these 12 weeks. Was it worth making them work on these challenges designed by adults, instead of letting them propose and work on their own project ideas? Was it worth trying to teach them some foundations of project management and project planning? Ultimately, the answers to these questions won’t be known until the end of the year. We will have to see how these 9th graders integrate themselves into the existing projects, or how successful they are at proposing and completing their own projects, or how they are able to continue with teacher-designed challenges. Are there things that I would do differently? Of course there are. This is the first time we’ve done this. Iteration and improvement is what Baxter is all about. Am I proud of what I saw the 9th graders do on December 4? Yes. I was skeptical – I’ve been teaching for a long time, after all – but, yes, as a group, they rose to the challenge. They might have slacked off earlier during the term. But when it mattered most, they worked hard – and continued working hard – until the last moment. And they learned about themselves from this experience.

That’s the point of Flex Friday.

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Intro to Statistics (Unit 1)

Statistics & probability in high school is often saved for 12th grade, though some progress has been made with integrating linear regression into algebra classes.
My school operates on trimesters, so each class is only 12 weeks long. We’ve created an Intro to Statistics class to focus on descriptive statistics during those 12 weeks. It’s really designed for students who are entering high school, not leaving it. I probably should have created this post a couple of months ago, since the term ends on Tuesday, but I’ve been a little busy.

All About the Chips

Early in the term we investigated claims made by Keebler and Chips Ahoy about their chocolate chip cookies. Of course, in order to really investigate, we needed to dissect the cookies and count up the chips. Here are our results (from this term):

  • Fifty percent of Keebler cookies have more chips than 100% of Chips Ahoy.
  • Keebler has a mean of 34.4. chips per cookie. With 24 cookies per package, this means there are approximately 860 chips per package.
  • Chips Ahoy has a mean of 25.9 chips per cookie. With 35 cookies per package, this means there are approximately 907 chips per package.
  • Although Keebler has fewer chips per package, they have more than 25% more chips per cookie (on average) than Chips Ahoy. Keebler would need to have an average of 32.4 chips per cookie for their claim to be true. They had an average of 34.4 chips per cookie, which is more than 25% more chips per cookie.

Students were asked to write an introductory paragraph and a concluding paragraph. Here’s one introduction:

Are they lying? That’s the question we asked ourselves when we conducted tests to see if either Chip’s Ahoy or Keebler told the truth in their advertisements. Chip’s Ahoy promised 1000 chocolate chips in every bag, and Keebler promised 25% more. Our findings surprised us.

The findings followed, and then this conclusion:

We believe, based on our findings, that Chip’s Ahoy told the truth, while Keebler tried to get away with a misleading slogan. While Chip’s Ahoy had approximately 907 chips per package, which is 93 less than they promised, it would be unreasonable to expect our estimate to be exact, as some cookies may have more chips than others. Because of this, we must grant Chips Ahoy some leeway, as it could simply be our estimate was low. However, Keebler promised 25% more chips than Chips Ahoy. However, the total number of chips in Keebler was actually less than Chips Ahoy. However, we believe “25% more” may be referring to the number of chips per cookie, not per package. Because of this, Keebler may be technically telling the truth, but they are misleading consumers. Chips Ahoy was telling the truth all along.

All About the Class

We also collected some data about the class, including height, arm span, and kneeling height. Students were asked to apply what they learned from the cookie activity to the this new data set. They represented the data graphically:

box plot histogram

And then described what they saw:

The height is skewed to the left, whilst the kneeling height is symmetrical. Kneeling Height has a small interquartile range, and is less spread out than height. The minimum Height is larger than the maximum kneeling height. Kneeling Height and Standing Height do not share a single point.

They are similar because they are both a measure of distance/height. They are different because a person’s kneeling height will never be greater than their standing height, which leaves interesting data with you compare the two.

There is less variation in kneeling height than there is in standing height. No one in the class was so tall their kneeling height was greater than the minimum standing height recorded.

Or:

Height: The data for height are skewed to the left with a median of 170.5 cm and an interquartile range of 10 cm.

Armspan: The data for armspan are skewed to the right with a median of 166.3 cm and an interquartile range of 11 cm.

Comparison: The median of both sets of data have a difference of 4.2 cm and the interquartile range has a difference of 1 cm. The Height data are skewed to the left while the armspan data are Skewed to the right.

Conclusions: In conclusion, the rule of thumb that you are as tall as your arms are long is mostly true because the median of both data sets is only 4.2 cm off and the fact that the interquartile range is but one centimeter off proves this further.

All About What They Learned

The first unit of the course ends with students finding and analyzing their own data. Data choices included movies, bass fishing, hours in space, world series appearances, touchdowns scored by the Giants and the Cowboys, wealth vs age, costliest hurricanes, and daily high temperatures for Portland, ME and Berlin, Germany. What I love the most about this assignment is that students are able to investigate something that interests them and show me what they’ve learned.

They always come up with topics that I would never think of!

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Another year begins

It seems like school ended just yesterday, or maybe the day before. And yet the new school year is already up and running.

Fort Williams 2015We had two days of orientation last week – organized by students, with adult assistance – and they were really great. The first day was once again at Fort Williams Park and the weather, though quite hot, was sunny. Three years in a row. How can we be so lucky? The difference this year was that 9th and 10th graders were organized by paired advisory groups. Each group had a couple of juniors with them, as mentors, and their adult advisors, of course. The team-building activities were facilitated by juniors with adult assistance. The senior class was off on their own, team building at a ropes course nearby. They joined us at the end of the day, so we had most of the school together, out there under the trees, to debrief the activities of the day.

On Thursday, we were in Portland, at Baxter. Since we have all four grades for the first time this year, we are squished into a building that is too small. So, we needed a satellite campus. This was not a surprise. In fact, several people have been working on this problem for a couple of years. Every time they thought that they had a solution, something got in the way. Late in the summer, the building search team was able to secure a second space in Portland, a short walk from our main building. The space is large enough to house a few (like three) classes, but small enough so that the 9th graders, who will be spending their mornings there, will have a cozy space to make their own.

Once again our faculty has expanded. We’ve added art, engineering, and computer programming teachers, along with math, science, humanities, and special education. We have an outstanding team that shows a great commitment to our mission and purpose, even as we continue to refine what that is.

My year looks to be very interesting and challenging. I have a whole bunch of new courses to create, starting this term with Introduction to Logic and Transformational Geometry. Were those really my ideas? What was I thinking? The first time through is always the most difficult. It will be nice when this year is over. I think that we will have some pretty solid classes.

We’ve emerged from the terrible two’s to begin our third year. We’re toddlers. We’re ready.

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Pride

What a week: Ending classes, field trips to Funtown and Boston, and Flex Friday celebration. That last thing was today.

Flex Friday is this thing we do at Baxter where kids work on long-term projects. They have to submit a proposal that goes through this pretty rigorous approval process. But then they get to work on their project. All year. Every Friday.

The concept is based on Google’s 20% time idea, where Google employees get to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. Actual or perceived at Google makes no difference at Baxter. We have it. And at the end of the year, they get to show us all what they’ve accomplished with their 20%.

So, today, our students presented and exhibited their results. They shared what they have built or created. They talked about their struggles and successes. They focused on what they had learned (time management, organization, and communication being the big three). And then when I get home, this note from our principal is in my inbox:

Dear Baxter students,
I am so proud of you. Days like today reveal just how much you have accomplished this year. You are so passionate and articulate with adults and with each other. You are professionals, in dress and demeanor. You are honest when you share your successes and when you talk about your failures, and all of you seem to know that both are part of learning. I love it when you are innovative and your projects this year sought to reach the boundaries of what you know, what any of us know: what we can do with a mechanism or ingredient or measuring device; what we can make with paint or pencil or editing program; what we can build in the lab, on the street, or in cyberspace; what we can grow; how to bring compassion to a community of innovators. You are curious and creative and you are already changing the shape of the world around you. Thank you for changing mine.

Ditto.

And thank you, Michele, for making Baxter Academy the place where I want to be.

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