Tech Salad

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Connecting the STEM Dots

In October, I clicked on a link in a tweet and discovered hexaflexagons. I watched a couple of videos from Vi Hart’s channel on YouTube, and then I set out to make my own.

When I left my office to find a teacher, I took my best hexaflexagon in my pocket. I finished my task, and on my way back to my office, stopped to say hello to Mrs. Falconer (blog). She had taught Math last year, so I showed her my hexaflexagon. Then I showed her one of the videos I had watched.

Mrs. Falconer was excited, and although she now teaches Social Studies, she came up with a perfect way to bring hexaflexagons into her classroom: the mathematicians mentioned in Vi Hart’s videos were very active in the 1920′s, a period Mrs. Falconer will be covering with her students anyway. So, instead of focusing just on Jazz and flappers, why not talk about the incredible advances in math and science? This is the time when Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein, and so many others worked out ideas we find all over textbooks and applied science today.

As I watched Vi Hart fold her hexaflexagon on the screen a second time, I was not so focused on how to make one myself. I had already done that. My mind drifted and I found myself thinking that proteins fold themselves up in the same way the paper folds for making a hexaflexagon. I thought I’d look into it, but I moved on to whatever happened in my next email and forgot about it.

Then, today, I read about a robot developed at MIT that can change its shape by folding itself in different directions. At a glance, the little robot looks like a metal version of the strip of triangles that is folded to make a hexaflexagon. And, yes, the robot is intended to mimic the structure of proteins in how they fold themselves. Eventually, this little robot prototype could end up serving as the basis for something really great. In my mind, it is all connected.

When we talk about STEM in schools, we focus too much on test scores, as always. How are we doing compared to the kids in China? Can we answer dozens of problems on a bubble sheet in a limited amount of time? I think this is the wrong approach. We should show kids that math, science, and engineering can be fun and beautiful, like decorated hexaflexagons and tiny transformer robots. We need more teachers like Mrs. Falconer. She is willing to deviate from her rigid curriculum and pacing guide just a bit to give her students an experience that might lead to a meaningful a-ha! moment in the future.

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