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Math and Doll Houses

April 19, 2016 Jacqueline Louie

How do you make math fun—and cool?

At Crescent Heights High School in Calgary, two teachers took a hands-on approach this past year to inspire their Math 10-3 students, many of whom had never been math fans and who became diligent and motivated learners.

Under their teachers’ guidance, students demonstrated their understanding of mathematical concepts by building doll houses that were later used to raise money for several charitable causes.

“We felt really strongly about giving these kids a chance and trying to find a way to help them be more successful,” says Crescent Heights mathematics learning leader, Nadine Laplante, the lead teacher on the project.

“They came in not wanting to do math and just wanting to get through the year. Now, they see the relevance of math in everyday life and in their future careers.”

The doll house project was designed by four Crescent Heights teachers: Laplante, Eric Freeman, Stephen MacNeill and Michelle Kluk. Funding was provided to the Calgary Board of Education for the project by a donor who wanted to encourage cross-curricular links between the trades and the core subjects of math, science, English and social studies.

At first, the idea of building a doll house was not cool for many of the male students. But “when we told them the purpose of the doll house was to donate toward women in need and Kids Cancer Care, the guys all of a sudden bought into it,” Freeman says.

During the course’s hands-on component, the students drew up blueprints for their doll houses, first by hand, then on a computer; then they made cardboard cutouts based on their blueprints. Working in teams, they designed, assembled, painted and decorated a total of seven doll houses, all under the guidance and supervision of their math and shop teachers, using wood donated by the Calgary Construction Association.

The project, which was designed to address all aspects of the Math 10-3 curriculum, also allowed the students to see how computers and woodworking, electricity, plumbing and other trades tie in together, and how math fits into everything.

“They said, ‘Teach us more, teach us more.’ We did trigonometry so they could finish the roofs on their doll houses,” says Laplante.

“In Math 10-3, trigonometry is usually a very tough sell,” Freeman adds. “It’s a tough unit that usually takes about 10 days to teach. [In this course,] Nadine managed to teach it in two days.”

Not only that, but when they were tested, the students achieved the highest averages these teachers had seen in any of their Math 10-3 classes for trigonometry, with scores in the 80s.

Another unexpected result from this hands-on approach to learning math was that attendance rates skyrocketed, from an average of 60 to 70 per cent to about 95 per cent attendance for every class.

Intrigued by what they were learning, students started asking a lot of questions, such as, What kind of career could I have? Can you actually paint for a living? How do you find out about jobs like this? To further emphasize the connections between their studies and the real world, their teachers took them on walkabouts, where they did things like look at the pitch of roofs and then discuss roofers and the work they do.

Now that they’ve had a taste of what practical mathematics is all about, the students are looking forward to Math 20-3, which will include a “Rube Goldberg” machine.

And the doll houses they made? They were donated to the Louise Dean School for pregnant and parenting teens, as well as to the Alex Centre, which provides medical care and housing support to vulnerable citizens; two of the houses were auctioned off to Crescent Heights staff with proceeds going to Kids Cancer Care. ❚

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