Let’s go do some math

I was watching an episode of Mythbusters the other day. I always enjoy that show and while most of the attention goes to the two main stars my favorite is Grant Imahara. On this particular episode they were trying to determine if a bullet could set off a rocket propelled grenade and if so what would happen to the people shooting both the RPG and the bullet that set it off. They started with some timings to see how fast both the bullet and the RPG would be moving. Once these timings were complete Grant utters a line you don’t hear often on TV – “Let’s go do some math!” And boy did he have some excitement in his voice as well. Now when it gets down to it what they were doing was a variation of the old “if one train leaves Chicago moving at x miles an hour and a second train leaves New York at y miles an hour where do they meet?” math problem that has been the butt of jokes for years. No, really it is the same problem. But somehow figuring out where a bullet and an RPG would meet seems a whole lot more exciting. Well at least to me and the stars of Mythbusters and I expect a lot of other people.

The fact that there was a very practice reason for this – so they could set cameras at the right spot to record the collision – made the problem more real, relevant and exciting. There were consequences of getting it wrong. Basically there were atoms moving along as well as numbers on a sheet of paper and things were going to happen if everything was calculated correctly.  Of course for some people  including me the idea that there was going to be an explosion (also if all went well) just added to the fun. But I wonder how often we hear students in school get all excited enough to shout out with genuine enthusiasm “Let’s go do some math!”

I have seen some of that sort of excitement among students involved in robotics even if not expressed in similar words. I see that same excitement in students working on their Imagine Cup entries as well. In both of these activities there are practical real-world results to the math. For robots it might be as simple as figuring out where the robot is. For the Imagine Cup it might be as major as creating diagnostic tools for diseases and saving lives. Regardless, the fact that things move for theory and paper to practice and real life make a difference. This is the reason we need real experiments in science classes for example. But we also need to find the way to bring the same into other courses. Computer science courses have an edge on traditional math courses in this area because we can at least show things on the screen and make it look like something is really happening. We can create games that incorporate math and physics. We can write programs that take information from various sensors (especially with Windows Phones) and combine the real/physical world with the digital world of our software.

Not everyone can set up an actual physical experience putting bullets up against RPGs – some things are best left to the professionals – but we can use computers to simulate of lot of exciting things. And maybe that is just what we need to do to help build excitement among students. Come on – “Let’s do some math!” should be a signal that good stuff is going to happen.

Some useful resources:

Tags