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Charlie: A Hands-On Approach to Math

Spring 2008 | Archives

Charlie Meet Charlie. He´s four inches tall. He has two wheels. And at just two pounds, he definitely isn´t the quintessential teaching assistant. But Charlie is bigger than his size implies, and MCC math instructor Mel Mays is sure to share Charlie´s talents with his Beginning Algebra classes.

Charlie rolls into the classroom ready to help Mays introduce the Cartesian coordinate system by illustrating the location of points via their x,y coordinates. He also helps demonstrate how to plot the corresponding point onto the rectangular coordinate system. When given an ordered pair, Charlie can also indicate the existence and usefulness of rational and irrational numbers over and above the tendency to only utilize the integers in real life situations.

It´s a pretty large sounding role for a small TekBot, but Charlie was built by Mays just for such lessons. The students gather to mark the classroom floor with masking tape to create a grid. With the x and y axes created, the students form a circle around the taped floor. Mays sets Charlie down on the linoleum, asks for a set of coordinates, and it´s show time for Charlie.

"Negative one, four!" a student contributes. Charlie sets off in the direction indicated by the ordered pair (-1, 4) on the masking tape grid. Mays expertly guides him to the correct spot with a handheld control. The exercise continues, with each student taking the helm and applying their understanding of this mathematical concept. Mays smiles and nods, proud of his students and Charlie´s popularity.

"The ability to determine the position of a point in a twodimensional plane and to plot points—ordered pairs—is a basic requirement at the very beginning levels of algebra instruction that assists students in understanding many of the algebraic concepts to be presented," Mays said. "Some students do not easily grasp these concepts from having them presented on a board in the front of the room. A moving artifact, such as a TekBot, can be used to show these in a hands-on, real-world scale environment."

Charlie has been a work in teaching progress that Mays began in the summer of 2006 while taking a seminar and graduate course at the Peter Kiewit Institute. For three weeks, Mays spent his mornings in classroom lectures and his afternoons in a lab building his TekBot. Two weeks into the course, Charlie´s construction was completed, and Mays spent the next week focusing on incorporating Charlie into an educational environment. As a math instructor teaching basic algebra, Mays ended up pairing Charlie with the Cartesian coordinate system lesson, and all that was left was taking him to class.

Mays has also implemented Charlie in his statistics course to help students collect values for a continuous random variable that they will analyze. Organized in teams, the students run Charlie through an obstacle course to generate data in a real-world environment (as opposed to simply using a data set provided to them).

"The participation and competition engenders far more student interest and involvement than just sitting in a sterile classroom environment," Mays said.

Mays brought Charlie to class this fall and winter quarters and plans on doing so again in the spring. And Charlie´s presence has been well received by his students overall.

"It was a neat thing!" said Adella Goff, one of Mays´ students. "Having Charlie help teach graphing ordered parts was an interesting way to make learning more exciting. I, as many others, enjoy visual learning and hands-on interaction. Charlie helped with both."

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