Tropical storm leads to STEM project on La Reunion

Posted 06/04/2020 by Marthe Pariset

“Combining math with real-world challenges through a ‘learning by doing’ approach is very rewarding. Sometimes teachers don’t get involved with STEM projects because they are not experts in all the different fields. But it is quite normal not to understand all the theory before starting a project. You learn on the go. I know from experience that finding a solution to a problem together with your students is very motivating!”

Every year, the French island of La Reunion faces tropical storms. In 2014, the cyclone Bejisa damaged the island’s Lycée Roland Garros school. Subsequently, three classrooms were out of order for two years and this prompted one of its members of staff, maths teacher Alexandre Techer, to start a STEM project. “The storm tore off the roof and damaged the electrical wiring. We always look for a link with real world problems in our projects and, well, here we had one,” he says.

“We asked our students to find a solution to repair the electricity supply and to research the best level of lighting a classroom should have.”

Interdisciplinary cooperation
Alexandre set up the project together with the school’s electronics department. “We brought together the two subjects and set up two different projects,” he says. “One was for the students doing a vocational stream with a focus on electronics and the other was an applied maths assignment for maths students with a focus on STEM. This meant the students, who were aged 16 to 18, had to take an interdisciplinary approach to working together. As the project progressed, they worked together more and more, and they began to understand how their different curricula were connected.”

Measuring lighting intensity
After the roof was rebuilt, the electricity and lighting in the room had to be reconnected. The electronics students were assigned to assist with modifications to the electrical supply and distribution systems, the rewiring of classrooms and replacing the lamps. The mathematics students were asked to research how to measure the intensity of the lighting in the classroom and to find the right parameter to obtain the correct level of brightness. In doing so, they applied statistics, photometry and light measurements, all of which are part of the curriculum.

“I am pleased at the way the students themselves came up with the approach to tackle the problem. They figured out that they had to make a grid on the ground to determine the level of luminance for each grid point.”

Use of technology
First they used a pencil to draw a grid on the floor. Then they did the measurements with lux meters and their own TI-83 Premium CE graphing calculators. “Later we used the TI Innovator Hub micro controller and the TI Innovator Rover robot car,” says Alexandre. “The students created a virtual grid with the Rover using coordinates. The Rover measured the brightness from the starting point. They then used the results to find a correlation between the x-axis (y-axis constant) on the floor and the level of brightness. To achieve this, they did statistical research with two variables, and at a later stage the process was automated using the Rover.”

Computational thinking
Solving a real problem has been very rewarding, says Alexandre.

“You can see how the students are advancing in computational thinking. To tackle a complex problem like this, you must break it down into smaller projects and simpler tasks. It requires teamwork and problem-solving skills. The project challenged the students and gave them new insights. I overheard them talking about how they realised learning maths is useful after all. They learned that drawing a graph helps to map measurements and solve a real problem."

Result: light plan implemented
Teachers, students and the school management are happy with the results. “The students were apprehensive at first, but they soon got to work, full of enthusiasm,” says Alexandre. “Instead of sitting still, listening to a teacher explaining maths, they were switching between the classroom floor and their devices to do measurements and calculations.” In addition, the students were asked to present the results to three other schools and their own school council, which subsequently decided to implement the lighting plan. “We now have perfect lighting in the three classrooms, which allows us to make better use of them. The illuminance is optimal, and the LED lamps are more durable as well.” Does the maths teacher have any advice for teachers that want to organize similar STEM projects? Alexandre: “Just dare to do it!”