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Luajean Bryan


"My primary goal for my projects was to build interest in higher-level math at the high school," recalls Luajean Bryan. "Many students elect to take off-campus courses from the local community college or area university. I really want to keep students on campus for pre-calculus and calculus, since I realize that college courses are great, but usually stick to the traditional lecture approach to instruction."

While Bryan also uses lecture instruction in her algebra, calculus, and statistics classes, she incorporates projects to make math more meaningful. The direct student application of the concepts has consistently resulted in greater success for her and the students she teaches at Walker Valley High School, a rural high school with approximately 1500 students in Cleveland, Tennessee.

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Although she had used projects on occasion over the years, a recent grant from the Toyota Corporation provided funds for project-based calculus and pre-calculus. It allowed Bryan to regularly incorporate large-scale projects into the curriculum. Enrollment had waned in her calculus class, and the projects were initially designed to generate enough interest to "jump-start" the course.

"The incentive that sparked interest was an un-tethered hot air balloon flight that was the grand finale project," Bryan told Education World. "This project has been used for the past three years. The first year, the class attracted 13 brave students; the next year, we had 15, and this year we had 16."

Calculus students take off on the hot air balloon ride that is their "grand finale" project.

In the 2007-2008 school year, the hot air balloon flights might not be continued because of their great expense. Bryan made her students aware of that, but still the pre-enrollment count for calculus was 97 students. Some of those students had not met the prerequisites, but 85 enrollees remained. That reflects a 500 percent increase in calculus enrollment, an exciting development for Bryan and the school and proof that the incentive has worked.

Some of Bryan's favorite pre-calculus projects include constructing a "parabolic culinary device" that uses solar heat to cook marshmallows, and designing a handicap ramp for the outdoor graduation stage. "Taking It to the Limit" is the title she has given to her class's hot air balloon calculus project. Other calculus projects are "Math in Motion," a study of rate of climb with helium balloons, and "Screaming for Ice Cream," a project that determines the maximum volume and minimum surface area of an ice cream cone.

Students prepare to cook a marshmallow with their "parabolic culinary device."

Bryan says there is a memorable "Aha!" moment from every one of her projects each time it is performed. She adds, "It is always special to hear the, 'Oh, I see...' or 'Wow, the math really worked!' comments." The math teacher is continually surprised to see students who will hardly do homework put enormous time into a great project. Because projects count for 30 percent of the grade in pre-calculus and calculus, they are another opportunity for success when homework seems dull.

Learning takes place in all of Bryan's projects. She offers a few tips for using hands-on projects in mathematics.

  • Do not do a project for the sake of doing a project. Make sure its a worthwhile project that actually teaches or extends concept(s) in the curriculum.
  • Present each project as special and exciting. Presentation is everything.
  • Always provide a scoring rubric along with the instructions, so students know the expectations. This also will make it easier to evaluate fairly.
  • Plaster photos of students and their projects around the classroom. This gives them pride in their work, builds their math confidence, and inspires other students who are considering enrolling in higher math.
  • Make certain that every project is represented algebraically, graphically, numerically, and verbally. Multiple representations always clearly teach a concept to every student and encourage the use of technology.

Bryan's own current endeavor is a compilation of her pre-calculus and calculus projects to share with other teachers. With the attention her work has drawn, Bryan hears daily from educators who would like to borrow some of her ideas, so shes busy outlining how to implement her strongest projects and the pitfalls to avoid. Each project on her CD will identify concepts, standards, and steps for implementation. The collection of activities is a labor of love for the experienced educator who admits, "I know I would have appreciated this as I began my quest for project ideas."

Article by Cara Bafile
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