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Teaching Middle School Through Instructables Answered

I am a junior high math and shop/technology teacher.

For years I have been wanting to develop a math program that uses as much hands on as possible. 

Like all teachers, I have developed a few projects, but just don't have the time to develop all the activities needed to cover an entire curriculum.

I would love to correspond/collaborate with others (including non teachers).

Email me directly if you are interested.  mikemckay@pwsd76.ab.ca



9 months ago

I am teaching electronics with maths on the side using Ohm's law, practical circuits, and various experiments. One thing we built and quantified was an electroscope.

It literally can be built from junk, and it hardly requires any complicated hand tools.

But the possibilities for teaching physics are vast. Charges, forces, current, capacitance...even ionizing radiation.

Don't forget - electroscopes were used as radiation detectors in the early days of particle physics...


charge.pnggif_temp (1).gif

DId you see what I am planning for a 7 year old aspie friend of mine? We will be turning the building of a model scorpion into an ible. Hopefully I wil be able to get her imput and also modify the thing a bit so we can make it even cooler (plus she'll learn all the insides of the scorpion). She hasn't been told yet "what" the project is, but she has an idea, and she is definitely interested in this kind of thing.

The topic can be found here.....let me know if you have any additions or helpful hints I could use....I have  never taught one so young before, even though she is way beyond a second grade level in reading etc.  

Hey, neat project.

After she finishes building it, get her to number the parts according to this diagram I swiped from wikipedia's scoropion article. Then maybe you and her could make a display case to put it in (little wood, some plexiglas...)

You might then show here pictures of lobsters, crawdads and other similar creatures and see if she thinks they might be related (I'm not a biology type person, so I don't really know about this).

Lastly, sometimes those one dollar shops sell keychains with scorpions encased in a block of clear resin. This could lead to discussion of the concept of scale.

Just out of interest, I think we guys in Alberta might have the most northern species of scorpion in north america.
Hey, neat project. 

After she finishes building it, get her to number the parts according to this diagram I swiped from wikipedia's scoropion article.  Then maybe you and her could make a display case to put it in (little wood, some plexiglas...)

You mioght then show here pictures of lobsters, crawdads and other similar creatures and see if she thinks they might be related (I'm not a biology type person, so I don't really know about this).  Lastly, sometimes those one dollar shops sell keychains with scorpions encased in a block of clear resin.  This could lead to discussion of the concept of scale.


Kids that age are great; they love learning and we have to get as much into them before they hit Junior High and "turn off".  Sorry for my ignorance but what is an "aspie"?


Many of the parts are a bit small to "tag" with numbers BUT they are color coded so we can do it by means of a chart with the already used colors....thanks for the idea.

She is already fairly familiar with many arthropods, so she won't mistake a scorpion for a crustacean (just teasing a bit). Scorpions are of the Phylum: arthropod, of the order of Scorpiones, in the class of Arachnida.   This makes them more like a spider then say a crab, lobster or crayfish (which aren't fish either).  

They are not very big with the one we are doing being of the family  Hemiscorpiidae, the genus of Hadogenes and the species being Troglodytes, the largest being around 20 cm in length (almost 8 inches) with the longest recorded one being 23  cm (a little over 9 inches long). 

The model we will be doing will be approximately 1/1 scale maybe being slightly but not very much, larger then the original.

 And, to explain two things in one paragraph, this child is a bit special.  She has Asperger's Syndrome which is a form of Autism, but displays a very HIGH function in a few selected areas.   This particular child, age 7, can name nearly every dinosaur that lived, and explain what their names mean, their habitat, food sources, living conditions and areas, etc etc.  She is great with human anatomy, insects (and arachnids i.e. spiders, ticks, mites, and......scorpions :-) .   She LOVES history, and is very knowledgeable about Roman history especially.   Don't forget, we are speaking of a SEVEN year old :-D   (around the same age I was dissecting batteries and taking tape recorders, etc. apart for parts LOL). 
She loves to construct robots and mechanical things (WE tend to like machines over some humans as humans can be fickle and odd at times, while a machine will never treat you badly on purpose;  I say we because I, my psychologist, and my family contend I have Asperger's Syndrome also).   Thus the abbreviation AS or as known among ourselves,  Aspies.  Some do not care for that rather less than onomastic name however.
And this also explains why I went into so much detail here.  My apologies if I droned on too long. 

Thanks for the ASPie definition.

Looking back over my 15 year teaching career, I realize that I have taught several ASPie's without knowing it.  The last one I taught was diagnosed before coming to me. So I did some research.  And when I viewed the video that you sent me of Temple Grandin, it helped confirm a lot of the behaviours I have seen.

If I were to summarize my theories on teaching kids, I would have to say that recognizing diversity in kids and encouraging within their diversities is the key.  I now know that ASPie's love detail, and to encourage a child with Asperger's you have to learn to capitalize on their love of detail. 

So it looks like you are doing a good job with your little friend. I think that Temple Grandin video should be required viewing for anyone going into teaching. 

In closing, I would like to say thanks for your input.  They say that Asperger's is an autism spectrum disorder.  I have come to realize that everyone is on some sort of spectrum and my job is to recognize and encourage people to be able to related to others on the spectrum.  Your input helps.

Reading your posts gives me a bit more hope for the students subjected to teaching these days (oh, wait, you're in Canada; never mind ...).

When I went through public school 30-40 years ago, all but one of my teachers were flexible, thoughtful, and focused on having all of their students learn as much as they could. If that meant spending extra time with the "slow" ones (yeah, we still used that term), or getting a textbook or box of "self-paced reading cards" from two classes ahead for a "bright" one, they would do it.

I don't think I was in any sort of exceptional place: I went to a lower middle-class public school in suburban California. But I got enough support that I still remember the names of several of my elementary and middle school teachers.

Thank you for being a big part of a critical profession!

I didn't see "support", sadly, until I was nearly 50 *sigh* I am glad also to see at least someone wanting to do it correctly.

Yes, and thank you for being one in a million....I wish I had had a teacher with even half your dedication and understanding when I was in school.

I would like to thank all of you for your kind comments here.

Please be advised that I am just a "Joe Schmoe" teacher. I don't think I'm any better than the rest of my colleagues.  I may sound good on a comment page but I still suffer from the "not enough time to do everything I want to do for the kids".

I say this because I don't want my head to swell.  But I sincerely believe that if we learned through doing, the majority of us would learn better.  I also believe that math is probably one of the hardest topics to learn through doing.  Hence my presence here, polling you people for your ideas on how we can teach kids through instructables.

One last thing.  I do believe teachers are better paid in Canada than in the states.  The pay grids for teachers in Alberta, Canada can be found by going to www.teachers.ab.ca and thumbing through the "collective agreements" for the different school districts.  I think being paid well does help because it makes you feel like you are recognized for the job that you do.

Again, thanks for the kind comments, but enough before my head starts to swell.

This brings up an interesting idea concerning visual thinkers.....looking at a "line drawing" may not be "relatable" to the actual object it represents (like a schematic or blue print).....about 24 minutes into this she mentions it.

Thanks for the video link.  My wife and I both watched it last night.  It was fascinating.

Grandin talks about three types of learning styles:  visual(pictures) word(auditory) and doing (tactile/kinethetic).  Martin Gardiner proposed the theory of multiple intelligences in which there are 9 ways in which people are smart or prefer to learn. (see image)

In school we cater to visual learners and auditory learners; when we cut shop, art,music out of the curriculum we are cutting those learners out of the system too.  Grandin was soooo  right on soooo many points.  We also have a culture where politicians or interest groups make bad decisions because they are disconnected from the actual problems; Ex's:  budget cutting school programs, horses, meat packing plants and feral horses,...).

So by interacting on websites like instructable, with people like you, I get inspired. It encourages me to look for better ways to make a potentially abstract subject like math more accessable to the average Joe or Jane. 

PS if the image is too small, I could always send it to you via email.

multiple intelligences.png

I feel a bit discouraged in that I feel like I have had the first 50 years of my life wasted because I was not shown things "the way I learn". I have had to research and study on my own time. Being a "normal kid" wasn't an option, and now, being a "normal adult" isn't really either. Stuck doing computer operations in a world going automated; with an "engineer's mind" but the knowledge of an apprentice, I don't have the time nor the money to get an decent education any more....and the stuff I have learned on my own.....isn't detailed enough to get me employment.

PS: The image is fine once one clicks on it to get the larger version :-)

Which form of math? Geo/trig would lend itself to MANY of the projects herein.

If you can understand the pedagogy, here it is:


Basically, in Alberta/Canada there are four curricular areas for all grades:

1. Numbers: (basic math and number manipulation, fractions, percents, decimals ....

2. Shape and space: two and three dimensional geometry, mesurement, transformations (enlarge/reduce, mirror images)...

3. Patterns and Relations: Algebra, graphing, polynomials...

4, Statistics and Probability.

Shape and Space and Statistics and Probability are pretty easy to make into hands-on; the other areas need more activities.

Alberta took trig out of grade 9 and put it in grade ten.

Thanks for your interest.

YW. I was good at geo/trig, and had many difficulties with algebra but that is because of my mental wiring. Abstracts that had no "immediate" use were hard for me to memorize.

Graphing can be kind of mingled with statistics can't they? Of course, numerical graphing.....using variables and proportions may insert a real difficulty. Polynomials will create a challenge I can't even imagine. :-) And quadratic equations will be most difficult (this is where I became "stuck" as my math teacher could not explain "how" they worked (proof). If I didn't understand it, I couldn't memorize it.

As a teacher, it frustrates me to see kids flummoxed by the "abstract", when a simple hands on project or demonstration could lead to understanding. 

For example, my kids used to have problems with the concept of looking at a 3 dimensional diagram and converting it into top,front and right end views until I discovered this website:


Most people see math as an abstact and onerous task.  I want to educate kids to see that math is really just a set of tools that can be used to build and design stuff.

Mike, you have my TOTAL blessing and support....I wish there were more like you around when I was a little striper (some 40 years ago). I am not going to sugar coat it though, the teachers I had couldn't "give me proofs" on how to work a quadratic equation, they'd have been even harder put to make them "pictorial" or "visual" in any way except the rote form of memorization to work the problems.

Hey ! THANK YOU for the link.....I have a youngster in mind that will LOVE this (as a 7 year old, she already creates 2-d origami like shapes on her own with triangles and square pieces).

The mathsnet site is worth sifting through. From our brief exchanges you strike me as both an analytical and hands on person. try finding the "lathe" animation on the mathnet site. I think you would enjoy it.

Sighhhh. Its Sunday and I'm working on mid term exams. Just wish I could have a practical exam where the kids have to build something that encompasses the majority of their math skills.

Thanks for your encouragement.


A question (maybe I missed it on the site) but as I worked through the "houses" some of the little indicators became green some yellow. Do the one's that are yellow indicate that I am "close" ?

Using "figuur 1" as an example: Just below the 3 view diagram it says "number of blocks" . The number that follows is the minimum number of blocks needed to complete the figure. There are many other configurations, using more blocks, that satisfy the puzzle. So when you have built a satisfactory answer the green dot appears next to the "figuur" number and when you have done it with the miniumum number of blocks a yellow dot should appear.

Towards the bottom there is a hyperlink to You tube showing the minimum configuration. It involves blocks floating in space, unsupported, but is technically and theoretically an answer. I find this is a good way to encourage deeper, abstract, outside of the box thinking with my students.

Thank you. I was finding the exercise very invigorating myself, but ran out of time before I could complete them all. I will have to make the attempt later on :-)

And indeed, if got me to think in ways I hadn't done for a long time :-) 

You wrote, "I want to educate kids to see that math is really just a set of tools that can be used to build and design stuff."

Hear, hear! One of my favorite engineering stories I remember from high school was the "Egyptian" method of making a carpenter's square (right angle). Take three straight sticks (like tongue depressors) and drill holes through them with distances of 3 units, 4 units, and 5 units. Use three of those brass pins to connect the sticks in a triangle, and the 3-4 corner will be "exactly" (within measurement precision) 90 degrees.

Hey, that's neat! I often teach my students about the three-four-five triangle.

My father was a self taught carpenter without a lot of education. I remember being a smart alecky high school kid and watching him check corners for squareness using this method. I tried to tell him about pythagorean theorem but it was greek to him (no pun intended).

The tongue depressor idea would make a good instructable. I will include this in my repetoire.

Thanks again!

Can you concretize polynomials by using block patterns, or is that too "elementary" for middle schoolers?

I'm imagining using square (cubical :-) blocks as counters, and building larger squares and cubes out of them: 1 -> 12 -> 13; 2 -> 4 -> 8; 3 -> 9 -> 27; and so on. It does get kind of unweildy after 5 or so, unless the cubes are fairly small (5 mm-ish).

You can graph polynomial equations up to 3rd order by working out the terms with blocks, then stacking them in lines on graph paper. Ideally you'd do it with expressions where the higher terms partially cancel (a line of ~100 5-mm blocks is awfully long :-).

Sketching a curved line to follow the endpoints of the stacks would also give a concrete flavor for interpolation (which the students could test by actually plugging in fractional values for x into a calculator, and compare with their lines).

We teach polynomials with something called alge tiles (short for algebra tiles).

this link shows the concept of alge tiles:


the alge tiles are 2 dimensional; we don't get into cubic equations in junior high.

You are right, they can be unwieldy so most modelling is based on simple equations.

Yes, very interesting! That's quite similar to what I was picturing in my head, except that I didn't take the pedagogical step of "locking together" the "x2" into a single object.

Interesting....so essentially though, only the smaller "orders" would need to be demonstrated. One could learn enough to see it in their head and understand it's function without the need for the visual in front of them for higher ?

That's what I was thinking. From what I've read, it's better to start with concrete examples and let the brain do the generalizing itself.

That would have suited me and my thinking processes in school really well. I was lucky enough to be in a school that allowed me to move into geometry after one year of algebra since they hadn't known of any real way of showing my visual thinking mind how to perceive quadratic equations.

You should PM Kiteman. He's a teacher here in the UK and is keen on teaching using Instructables too.


Sounds interesting - keep me in the loop if you can (although I'm quite busy right now, starting a new job).

In the mean time, have a look at my "how to use instructables in school", especially the part where you can have a free pro membership.

You may also want to contact Instructables directly, as they have some programs for teachers.