Building Math Series
This year, why not go on an Amazon Mission, a Trek on Everest, or get Stranded on an island? This very unique set of books integrates algebraic reasoning with engineering in an engaging, survival-type context. Written by the Museum of Science (Boston) and funded by the GE Foundation, one of the goals of the series is to increase student engineering and technological literacy along with providing a context for math. This series succeeds at both. Not only do children study and use the Engineering Design Process (EDP) and apply it to engineering designs of their own, but they need to use critical math skills in the process.
This is a well-conceived course because it integrates skills that are normally taught in isolation and synthesizes them into a constructive purpose that includes a need for creativity as well as application of knowledge. The other major component of this course is the team component - something you will miss if you use these units without a group. Classroom teachers have the added advantage of multiple teams working on the objectives; multiple solutions are attained and then compared. However, homeschoolers have an advantage in that it is easy to implement hands-on unit studies and be flexible in time allotments for activities. Cross-curricular approaches like these (known in homescholing vernacular as "Unit Studies") have been popular all along for home study. Most of these have concentrated on history, literature, character building, and science. They usually assume you will use a separate math program alongside, since math is only half-heartedly integrated in them. So I'm excited to see this unit study equivalent that's all about math, engineering, and problem solving! And for middle schoolers!
Each of the three books contains three distinct design challenges relevant to the context of the situation. In Amazon Mission, these involve designing a medicine carrier, designing a water filter to rid the drinking water of mercury, and forming a virus containment plan. In Everest Trek they must conceive a plan to climb Mt. Everest, design a bridge to cross a large crevasse, and find a way to transport sick climbers back down the mountain quickly. Stranded! students crash in a plane on their way to New Zealand. They must determine their position, survive a thunderstorm, find a fresh water supply, and design and test a loading plan to get themselves and their equipment into their rescuers' unstable canoe.
Each book also includes a unit investigating the Engineering Design Process (a poster of the process is included in each book). So, if you use more than one, you would skip this section in successive adventures. Each book also has a pre-challenge section in which prerequisite math skills are reviewed and honed. Math skills are used heavily in the challenges and vary depending on the application. Engineering skills are equally stressed as each challenge incorporates the EDP and progresses through those steps from defining initial requirements to putting the prototype design to the test.
The main drawback I see for using these in the homeschool is the lack of numbers of students. Looking through them, a single student could complete the challenges and benefit sufficiently from the experience to make it well worth using - especially if he or she has engineering interest/aptitude. However, it would be nice if you have two students close to this grade range. Then, each student could be their own "team". Even better would be getting together with other homeschoolers. These studies would make excellent coop activities and would be a great opportunity for children to learn to work together in a cooperative team experience. Each book takes about 3 weeks (approx 45 minutes/day) to complete (individual challenges take between 4-6 periods each). If working with fewer children or individually, that time would be significantly reduced as you wouldn't have group presentations, discussions, or assessments.
Each book contains reproducible student pages, teacher pages, a DVD of classroom videos, a small wall chart showing the Engineering Design Process, and a java applet used as a computer model in one of the activities. Materials list are fairly mundane; the most exotic requirement is the math balance used in the final design challenge in Stranded! The exposure to engineering, practical thinking required, and application of math skills to real-life problems makes this course experience a standout to me.