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Calling the Guggenheim

August 8, 2011

During Dan Meyer’s keynote on Wedenesday night, he showed this great photograph of an exhibit at the Guggenheim as an example of his #anyq’s effort.

This is almost a perfect opening for a three act math story. Right now, you’re thinking—”how much money is in the room?” And there’s only one problem—you don’t have the dimensions of the room. In his keynote, Dan descirbed being in the room, and all they ways he contemplated testing security to get the dimensions of the room, but he came up empty handed. Then he decided to call the public relations department to see if they’d be willing to give him the blueprints for the room.

And cool part here: The Guggenhiem called him back with the blueprints. Dan even played the voicemail for the audience.

So how many times in your teaching career do you get to the point where you think “This would be so cool, if…If I knew of an aerospace engineer I could talk to about the how the engine works, if I could get the building dimensions from an engineer, if I could put my kids in touch with the author of the book?” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve thought of that and then done nothing, thinking all of those people are out of my reach, and none of them would be interested in helping out a high school teacher or connecting with kids.

Dan has inspired me to call the Guggenheim—to take the seemingly impossible next step of reaching out into the world to grab the information you need bring awesomeness to your work.

And here’s an example of just how easy this is. Part of our homework from Dan’s workshop was to go out and find interesting math stories in photos and videos. One of the most visually compelling was this image by Alistair Heseltine:

Instantly, the question everyone had was “how many logs?” But this is where act 2 sort of falls apart. No one knew how many logs there were, or how to go about finding out. At first, we didn’t even know who created the image.

But then I googled “woodpile shaped like tree”, and pretty soon found this link to BoingBoing, and then Alister’s own website. So I dashed off this quick email:

Dear Alistar,
I am a high school physics teacher. I found your incredible art of the woodpile shaped like a tree. I was wondering if you knew/clould tell me how many logs/trees went into making the tree shaped woodpile. It would greatly help a quick little project I’m trying to do that uses your photograph as inspiration.
Many thanks,
-John Burk

A couple of days later, I got this response:

Hi John,

Maybe 15 trees of different sizes in a big heap cut up over a period of time……. perhaps you can use your math skills to reverse engineer the details………….

here’s some more guesstimates,

I figured there was between 4&5 cords but I may have inflated that to make myself feel more impressive…….one chord = 4X4X8 feet

wood pile was 50 X12 feet or was it 13 ? approx you will have to do the area geometry yourself

wood billets cut between 16 and 18 inches long stacked to one log depth

biggest tree about 16″ diam split into 8 wedges at butt …. tapering to 5″ cut in half at 50 feet distance from base you do the math on the number of wedges in that tree and then get the kids to count all the bits in the pile

have fun!


Total time spent: less than 30 minutes.

When will you call the Guggenheim?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011 2:28 pm

    Putting the fire to our feet as information gatherers. Going for broke. Really all we risk is a little rejection, right? Love it. Thanks for the motivating post.

  2. August 8, 2011 4:34 pm

    As much as I hate cold-calling anybody, I’ve done it a few times and had mostly positive results- even if they didn’t lead to awesome lessons right off the bat.

    At the very least I’ve added a contact or bit of knowledge to my own repertoire that I can pull out at a later date. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. August 8, 2011 6:43 pm

    These are standard fair for Fermi problems. I usually break the class in to 4-5 groups, each group working out an estimate on the chalkboards, then presenting their arguments to the rest of the class. We take the average of those 5 estimates to be ‘best’, but the ‘proof’ of order of magnitude estimates, is that all answers tend to be clustered close together. Year after year, I give this problem “Estimate the annual cost to U.S. consumers for tamper-resistant packaging.” And year after year, the answers are in a very narrow range, never more than a factor of 10 apart.

    As far as the museum, my students would use an estimate of the person’s dimensions, to estimate the dimensions of the room.

  4. August 8, 2011 7:52 pm

    Check out this teacher Christian Long who taught an entire course around TED talks. Particularly check out their lunch and learn skype chats. They were able to schedule skype chats with prominent TEDsters and the class would interviewed them. Very cool way to connect with outside experts. The aeronautical engineer you were looking for is maybe only a linkedIN search and Skype chat away.

  5. Becca Schutzengel permalink
    August 9, 2011 1:18 am

    Agreed. Also, if you have a question but you don’t know who to contact initially, you could probably find someone pretty easily just by posting on your blog/twitter. The whole six degrees of separation thing will work pretty strongly to your advantage.


  1. Great question from a prospective physics teacher—is there a canon of physics labs? « Quantum Progress

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