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 — is 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.