Thursday, August 1, 2013

Math: Where No One Has Gone Before

I like numbers now, for the most part, but there was a time when they kicked my ass.

Math was a chore and a struggle for me as a child.  I remember vividly the mimeographed and photostatic drill sheets Dad brought home to aid me with my multiplication tables in the 4th grade, and how I would have to fight back tears if we should be driving home and he would blurt out "What's 6 times 9?" without warning.

Still, the drilling paid off, reinforced with some of the catchier numbers from Schoolhouse Rock (which is still how Glory remembers her three and eight times tables), but then some wiseacre had to mix in numbers with the letters, and the struggle returned.  By the time I went to college, my zeal to escape math was so profound, I not only embraced the liberal arts, but took two semesters of Latin rather than learn calculus.

In this, my daughters and I are alike, and now it has fallen to me to help Glory sharpen her math skills over the summer so she doesn't have too rough of a time in grade 6 come September.  We bought a workbook from the Education Station, and she has been pretty diligent about completing three pages a day.  Marking them is not too bad, what with the answer key and all, but correcting them can be problematic; it's now been long enough since I've done long division that not only is it a chore to remember, the bloody methodology has changed!  Who would have thought that there were any advances left to be made in this field?

At any rate, converting Glory from remainders to decimals have proven to be pretty challenging, but I think we are making headway.  The biggest hindrance is still the numbers themselves, but she is a good worker with a keen head for patterns, so I have every confidence that eventually the times tables will begin to 'click' for her and feel more natural than they do now.

It wasn't all that different with Fenya, and I felt so bad about the struggles she had with some of the word problems from school, I thought it might help if I took some of the perimeter and area questions and put them into a bit of narrative.  Figuring that  familiar characters might make the task a little less onerous, so I decided to use Star Trek, and dusted it off tonight for Glory.

A landing party from the USS Enterprise has beamed down to an outpost on Omicron Ceti IV to help the scientists prepare for an imminent Klingon attack.  Captain Kirk immediately has Chekov take a security detail and establish a perimeter.  Not too long after, Spock’s tricorder has a map of the perimeter: 
 “The Enterprise has more than enough poultrax mesh to build a basic fence along this outline, Captain,” says Mr. Spock.  “Logically, this should be the first part of our defense.”“Very good, Spock.  Have Mr. Scott beam down the necessary equipment and a work detail.” * How big is the outpost’s perimeter?   * Each roll of poultrax mesh can make 500 m of fence; how many rolls should Mr. Spock ask for?   While the engineers are constructing the fence, Mr. Spock continues. “Obviously, a simple fence will be a minor obstacle to ground forces, but will be of no aid whatsoever against an air attack, or disruptors fired from the Klingon ship in orbit.  We shall need to improvise a force field to cover the entire area.”“Like a roof…” muses Kirk.“Precisely,” Spock nods.  “I shall have Mr. Scott transport down enough anti-matter batteries to establish a satisfactory force field.  It will also combine with the poultrax mesh to protect the sides of the outpost as well.” * How big will the top of the force field be?  * If each battery can power 2 km2, how many batteries do they require?   Kirks’ communicator beeps, so he removes it from his belt and flips it open.  “Kirk here.”“Scott here, Cap’n,” replies the voice of the ship’s chief engineer.“I hope you are able to keep up with all of Mr. Spock’s requests, Scotty,” jokes the Captain.“Aye, sir,” chuckles Mr. Scott.  “I just needed to ask how high the force field will be.”  Kirk raises an inquisitive eyebrow at Mr. Spock.The science officer furrows his brow.  “The standard height of a Federation force field is 1000 meters, but given the power of the Klingon weapons, I suggest we double it.”“Aye aye, sir,” affirms Mr. Scott.  “2000 metres it is.  Now, about the atmosphere generators…”“Why would we need those?” interrupts Kirk.  “This is a class ‘M’ planet with a breathable atmosphere, isn’t it?”“The forcefields are airtight, Captain, in order to keep out harmful gas and radiation.  If the Klingons should place the outpost under siege, they could conceivably run out of air.”  Spock explains patiently. * How much volume will be contained within the forcefield?   * If one atmosphere generator can recycle 11 km3 of air, how many will they need?  Mr. Sulu runs up to the two officers.  “Captain, I think we have a problem!  My tricorder readings show that the local star is so intense, its rays will blind everyone in the outpost when it refracts through the forcefield.”Spock checks Sulu’s readings.  “This is good work, Lieutenant, I had not anticipated this.  Now we can have Mr. Scott re-set the north-facing generators so they do not allow visible light to pass through.” * How big is the north facing ‘wall’ of the forcefield?

Don't get me wrong; it was still math, it was still not a choice, and I was still the bad guy for making her do it, but in the end, marking it and talking about it was easier because there was a story we could hang it on.   Even if the story was terribly contrived.  Worse still, the 'poultrax mesh' reference was lost on Fenya, since she wasn't familiar with chicken wire in the first place.  

When I ran it past Glory tonight, she didn't get it either, but she agreed to take a swing at the Defense of Omicron Ceti IV tomorrow anyways.

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