Embrace the Absurd

fallingobjectI was teaching my Business Calculus class the other night and we were talking about speeds of projectiles (objects flying through the air).  I was planning to do a problem about something dropping from a great height and calculate the speed as it hit the ground.  In order to make the class a little more interactive, I asked the class for a tall object that we could use.

I was expecting something like the Empire State Building, St. Louis Arch, or Eiffel Tower.  However, I didn’t really explain why I needed this item yet and one young lady spoke up and said “giraffe”.  I kind of chuckled and clarified what I meant and the class all got a good laugh about it.  I then got someone to suggest the Eiffel Tower.

Illustration by Bonny Prudhomme

Illustration by Bonny Prudhomme

I began to sketch it on the board and thought it might be fun to incorporate both suggestions.  I then told the class that we were going to drop an object off of the top of a giraffe who was standing on the top of the Eiffel Tower.

This took the problem to a whole new level.  Instead of just being a math problem, the Eiffel Tower added a little more interest to it.  Adding the giraffe made it a fun problem!  Students were sketching giraffes on their paper.  Some started asking if it was a adult or baby giraffe or if it were a male or female giraffe…….I let the young lady who suggested giraffe in the first place make those decisions for the class.  Their brains were working!!

Later in the problem I had them give me their answers to put on the board for comparison.  Most of the answers were around the same, but there were a few answers that were larger than the rest.  Students started joking and saying things like “Man, how big was your giraffe!!?”  I loved it!  They were able to not only work with the problem that I gave them but make comparisons with other variables within the original problem.

giraffeThe “giraffe” added an absurd element to the problem (without taking away from the original point).  I think this helps.  Quite often in our classes we tend to use examples that are too serious or specific or maybe even canned.  If students do not have an interest in our subject (other than it is “required”) then these problems are not really going to inspire them.  Adding an absurd twist to one of these types of problems gets the students interest.  With the right twist you can even create a running inside joke for the class.  I am already thinking of ways to use the giraffe throughout this course given the reaction it got in this class.  Embrace the absurd!!  It just might help your students feel more relaxed.

Sneak Preview:  Tomorrow’s “Reading on Thursday” features a post by the mysterious “lemonsnap” of the LASS division. Check in to enjoy some ideas from this tall, dark(ish), and ruggedly handsome colleague.

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