BOX 9.1 Bringing Real-World Problems to Classrooms

Children in a Tennessee middle-school math class have just seen a video adventure from the Jasper Woodbury series about how architects work to solve community problems, such as designing safe places for children to play. The video ends with this challenge to the class to design a neighborhood playground:

Narrator: Trenton Sand and Lumber is donating 32 cubic feet of sand for the sandbox and is sending over the wood and fine gravel. Christina and Marcus just have to let them know exactly how much they’ll need. Lee’s Fence Company is donating 280 feet of fence. Rodriguez Hardware is contributing a sliding surface, which they’ll cut to any length, and swings for physically challenged children. The employees of Rodriguez want to get involved, so they’re going to put up the fence and help build the playground equipment. And Christina and Marcus are getting their first jobs as architects, starting the same place Gloria did 20 years ago, designing a playground.

Students in the classroom help Christina and Marcus by designing swingsets, slides, and sandboxes, and then building models of their playground. As they work through this problem, they confront various issues of arithmetic, geometry, measurement, and other subjects. How do you draw to scale? How do you measure angles? How much pea gravel do we need? What are the safety requirements?

Assessments of students’ learning showed impressive gains in their understanding of these and other geometry concepts (e.g., Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). In addition, students improved their abilities to work with one another and to communicate their design ideas to real audiences (often composed of interested adults). One year after engaging in these activities, students remembered them vividly and talked about them with pride (e.g., Barron et al., 1998).

classrooms with communities of practitioners in science, mathematics, and other fields (Barron et al., 1995).

A number of video- and computer-based learning programs are now in use, with many different purposes. The Voyage of the Mimi, developed by Bank Street College, was one of the earliest attempts to use video and computer technology to introduce students to real-life problems (e.g., Char and Hawkins, 1987): students “go to sea” and solve problems in the context of learning about whales and the Mayan culture of the Yucatan. More recent

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