Improper fractions and scale, on a warm summer day

Staff Photojournalist photo by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group

On a hot (by Oakland standards) summer afternoon this week in Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood, a group of almost 50 soon-to-be middle schoolers were in the thick of problem solving at their local school.

I mean, check out that whiteboard!

The topic was measurement and scale, a concept that’s fundamental to our lives — and to the work of engineers, architects and planners — but sometimes difficult for kids to wrap their minds around.

To demonstrate the pitfalls of creating small-scale models with inexact measurements, Ryan Patrick O’Neill, an Oakland math teacher, pulled up an ancient map of the world and compared it to a modern one, made with the benefit of satellite technology.

“What’s wrong with this map from 200 CE?” he asked the class of 10- and 11-year-olds, later noting the different sizes and shapes of India, Australia, and the African continent.

The history and purpose of units of measurement could easily be a dry lesson. But at the new summer engineering academy at Madison Middle School (also in place at Frick and West Oakland middle schools), students learned the value of a ruler by moving around the room and measuring various lines with a juice box, a pencil, an umbrella and other objects that proved a bit unwieldy.

“Was it weird to measure things not with a ruler?” O’Neill asked when they’d returned to their seats. “Which one do you think is more exact?”

When they compared their findings, which included the area of the classroom floor, a fraction multiplication exercise followed. It involved converting mixed numbers into improper fractions for purposes of multiplication, and then converting the answer back into a mixed number. (Note: In my first draft, I wrote “imperfect fractions.” Then something — maybe the ghost of my fifth-grade math teacher — told me didn’t sound right. It wasn’t!)

I kept thinking O’Neill was going to lose the class — this is summer, after all, and the room was also pretty stuffy — but they stayed with him.

Maybe it went back to something 10-year-old Melanie Renteria told me minutes earlier, after explaining how she’d made a model windmill: “You study and learn those things because you’re going to use them.”

In case you were wondering, the area of the classroom floor — at least, according to Group #1 — ┬áis 438 and 3/4 square Spider-Man umbrellas.

A story and videos about grant-funded academic enrichment programs in place this summer in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay Area is due to come out Sunday.

I should note that at some of these schools, including Madison and Roosevelt middle schools, demand for the STEM programs exceeded the number of seats.


Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Ann Joseph

    How do families find out about these programs? I have a child that was just promoted from an OUSD elementary school and is starting 6th grade in the fall who could really benefit from such a program.

  • Katy Murphy

    Hi Ann,

    I’d suggest talking to the teachers and principal at your child’s elementary (and, possibly, middle) school. The district puts out information each spring about summer offerings too. Here’s a link to this year’s summer learning web page and catalogue.

    Sometimes the programs come together with little notice because of the timing of the grants (one of the big middle school grants came through in May!), and the offerings sometimes change from year to year, so it’s not as easy as it should be for parents to find out what the opportunities are. Good luck in 2013!

  • Ann Joseph

    Thanks Katy! We were interested in the arts program at Glenview for this year, but was told that it’s almost impossible to get in. Seems like a case of high need with too little resources, but we’ll try again next year.