math is physics


We have the Discovery series of math books. We’re discovering them too. The teacher who runs the real algebra 1 classes likes to run a tight ship, and eschews hands-on work. To be honest, as an experimental physicist, I don’t have much in common with this philosophy, so I decided to run my algebra lab independently of what’s going on in the algebra class. The Algebra 2 lab ( for struggling math students) is doing exactly the same as Algebra 1 lab, and the results are about the same (or a bit worse).

Last week  we did the spaghetti strand experiment. How many pennies does it take to break a spaghetti strand? 2? 3? 4? 5? Then we used this data to crate an xy plot in Excel, and also in geometer’s sketchpad. We did a best fit line, and we’ll teach them how to do that same thing on the calculator.

The students in two of my 3 lab classes enjoyed this hands-on activity, working all at once. They liked being able to see other students working on their work too. They liked seeing what they got for results as well as the others. This is the down side of  “work at your own pace” – the whole class camaraderie is gone.

They hoped that if they didn’t finish, it would go away, but no! it just got added to their work pile.

The additional use of Excel, and piling on of GSP spurred many kids on to working on completion of our first project, which they were hoping would go away if they just waited.

What we teach kids – if they refuse the work, we’ll give them other stuff, and they’ll never have to learn anything new. If they work slowly enough, they can just quit. And math has nothing to do with science or technology. Everything in separate niches.  And no connection from week 1 to week 11 to week 21. No wonder they have such difficulty with math!

Oh, the third group? They have totally taken on board the idea, from the previous 8 years, that if they all do no work, then I’ll have to pass them all. But our new administration has received the message (finally) that passing students on doesn’t help them. Last year we had zero students pass the state test, and the new superintendent gets the message that we’re assessed as a district on the state test, not on how many fake passing grades we give out. It only took 10 years. The adults are no better than the kids. There’s hope yet.

Anyway, I have promised them a hands-on activity each week. Now I have to supply materials for them. Sigh.

I blame the schedulers for thinking that physics and math are separate subjects.


5 responses »

  1. As I’m starting to plan for my next unit in Algebra I, I’m finding that we’ve already covered most of it in Physics. Like, horizontal lines have zero slope. I don’t have to teach them that now because they already did the constant velocity lab. So they know that on a x vs t graph the slope is the velocity and a horizontal line means zero velocity. This extra time in Algebra should lead to some interesting extension activities!

  2. Please, never say this again. Math is not physics, math is a language for physics and other sciences. Physics is not a bunch of formulae, it is much deeper than this. And math itself is not just for serving some practical purposes. As a physics major and teaching both math and physics for years, I am always trying to show my students huge differences between two subjects and their goals. Yes, in schools it helps to coordinate both and it is beneficial for both to use the common examples. But I would like to reiterate my first thought again: please, they are different. Physics describes nature, math works with any abstract objects we can or even can’t imagine.

    • You are being way too serious for my blog. Of course math is not physics. I abhor teaching math. I love physics. What’s the point of a language with nothing to say? And these are remedial math students – it’s not as if they see any beauty in math as an abstraction any more than they write poetry. However, I can get them to do some physics instead of math, as long as I am careful not to call it physics.

      • Sorry, Maybe I did sound to serious. But I heard so many times in different contests the statement about physics being a part of math, that my first reaction was a bit harsh. I had many students doing good in math and not so good in physics and vice versa. I do like both (actually, I love physics, sorry if it sounds too pathetic), and I am trying to show my students different sides and beauties of both subjects. Sorry again for a kind of impolite comment.

      • Not impolite, actually caused high amusement with my family, because for me, EVERTHING is applied physics. Math serves physics, written language serves physics, chemistry serves physics, technology serves physics. But, I’ve got to find something to blame 🙂
        By the way, I can find a bunch of math people who say that just because we use math as a language for science, that doesn’t mean that’s what it is. It’s like using a screwdriver to open a paint can. If you’re lucky we can attract them over here too, and have a good pointless argument going 🙂

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