Math Students Take a Calculated Adventure

Zip line Barbie experiment helps students learn Pythagorean theorem.
Learning the Pythagorean theorem—the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides—can be done in a classroom, at a desk, with a worksheet and calculator. But because girls learn best when working collaboratively, GPS math teachers took their students outdoors and fashioned a zip line from the top of the Middle School balcony to the lawn below. By solving a2 + b2 = c2, the girls worked in teams to determine how long their cords needed to be to get a daredevil Barbie to descend from the top of the zip line to the bottom and land safely on her feet.
“Students measured the height of the balcony rail and the distance along the ground and began to brainstorm how to account for the fact that Barbie needed to stop when her feet were safely on the ground,” says Courtney Alexander Tallant ’08, whose Algebra I students were the first to test their calculations. After collaborating and calculating the length of the zip line, groups of students put their math to the test.
Along with Tallant’s class, students from math classes taught by Kim Myers and Annie Loveless ’02 joined in later that afternoon and the following day, taking their students and Barbies on a mathematical adventure.
“Some of my students struggled with the idea that they had to subtract the small triangle from the large triangle,” Myers says. The small triangle was formed by Barbie’s having to land on her feet rather than dive headfirst into the point where the line met the ground. “The girls did like the fact that they got to experience using the Pythagorean theorem rather than just sit in class and do a bunch of problems on paper. They also hadn’t stopped to think about all of the ways that this type of math is used in real-world situations.”
Word is still out on whether or not Adventure Barbie enjoyed the zip line. But we have to presume that, like most girls, she likely prefers experiential learning to completing worksheets.