Math and Science Find Their Ideal Vehicle

Bill Fisher
For eighth graders, toy cars may be the ideal “vehicle” to gain a deeper understanding of concepts in mathematics and science. At least that’s what the anecdotal evidence suggests. During “What’s My Line,” the culminating event of an interdisciplinary math-science unit that’s been a highlight of the Upper School curriculum for two decades, students laugh and cheer while they race cars, generate data, and plot the results on a graph.

“The goal of the unit,” explains Upper School math teacher Anneke Chang, “is to link the linear relationships students have studied in math to the experiments they have conducted in science.” In the science lab, students conduct experiments to determine the density of certain solids and the boiling points of water and alcohol. In math class, they examine the graphs of the data, draw “lines of best fit,” and then use the equations of those lines to draw conclusions about the science.

“What’s My Line,” the culminating event of the unit, occurs in the Howard Gym, where the entire floor surface is taken over by miniature race courses laid out with masking tape. It’s the ideal setting for generating data to create lines of best fit, or trend lines, which are straight lines that best represent the data on a scatter plot. Pairs of students each receive their own “Tumble Buggy,” a battery-operated toy car with flashing lights and just two speeds at which to travel in a straight line: fast and slow. The fun begins as students power up their cars to determine the time it takes their vehicle to travel varying distances—the baseline data on which they’ll later base predictions. They graph their travel times and use lines of best fit to figure out the approximate speed of their Tumble Buggy. Armed with that knowledge, students next team up in groups to predict the time it will take their cars to run a relay race around one of the tracks in the gym. Accolades go to the teams whose predictions come closest to the actual results.

The relay races, involving multiple cars per team, highlight the different strengths and skills of the group, says Chang. “Some can troubleshoot issues with the cars, others can organize the data well, some have no trouble using the computer, some are quick with calculating, and some are good at getting the cars around the track.”
Adds fellow Upper School math teacher Kent Vienot, “What is exciting about this project is that students can see the practical application of the algebra they are learning.”

Chang admits, “It’s an elaborate way to investigate these concepts, and it takes us hours to set it all up, but it’s a lot of fun, and the math and science are real.”