Popping Bubble Wrap

What might a sheet of bubble wrap have to do with learning math?

So, in my last blog post I referenced former math teacher Dan Meyer’s online curriculum–offered for free as slides in PDF, Keynote, and PPT formats–that he used with real, live students. His latest thinking about math instruction took him to a different type of online curriculum, using problems he creates, to be presented to students in three acts. You can even see a list of all of the ones he has created, and if that number of examples is not enough to be used with your students, they should provide enough context for creating one of your own.

I wanted specifically to look at the bubble wrap one because bubble wrap isn’t really that important. It’s just a prop. But it’s what I might call a sticky prop, one that is simple sure, but it offers just a little bit of engaging interest to us (or to our students). Popping bubbles is something people like to do, either to relieve stress, because they’re bored, or who knows why. It feels good/interesting/curious to pop bubbles. And your students have likely popped some bubble wrap in the past. And that’s what I mean by a sticky prop: bubble wrap is interesting enough to hook us into the problem.

The cool thing about Dan’s 3-act problem with bubble wrap is, once we’ve figured out how to answer his questions (which often start with us making guesses, then refining our guesses with data points), we can apply it to different situations. If someone a year from now were to ask us “How much do you want for painting the inside of my house?” you might reference a 3-act learning experience. Personally, I’d ask how many rooms, estimate an hourly wage, then guestimate how many hours it would take me to paint those rooms. Most math problems might attack the situation is a very analytical way with how many square feet there are in the house… By design, Dan’s 3-acts are tied to situations that are more real and more every day, and if they all are not practical, they at least are sticky enough to command some interest.

I also like that so many of Dan’s problems involve video as a medium. Short videos demand our focused attention, and we can play them back multiple times, if we missed what we were supposed to see. It’s up to us as educators, I think, to make use of the millions of hours of free video available to us now to think creatively about the potential math, unsolved problems, and curious questions that lurk in short clips.

If you’re interested in 3-act math, I might suggest a few next steps:

  • Read through at least 5 of the examples linked above to get a flavor of a 3-act math problem.
  • Find one that relates to your own content standards, and try it with students.
  • Create your own 3-act, by including images and/or video in the problem. You can create your own, or borrow something with sticky interest from YouTube.
  • Reward yourself with some bubble wrap.