Rigorous Interactive Digital Activities in STEM Courses

If you teach a STEM course like me (I teach physics), then you know that creating and implementing a remote learning activity for a STEM course that retains the rigor required for a math-based discipline is challenging to say the least.  It simply isn’t a natural modality for any subject that requires one to move beyond language as the basic communication tool of practice.  While language is an excellent communication tool for the demonstration of conceptual understanding in these fields, to prove mastery of these subjects, one must move beyond looking over the edge of the high dive, analyzing how swimmers move their arms and legs, or which breathing techniques seem the most efficient, and instead one must actually leap off into the deep end of applied mathematics, where you will indeed have to swim around until you get all pruney to master it yourself! 

Conceptual Understanding versus Practical Ability

So, how do we get our students to swim until they are pruney in digital platforms that are clearly not designed with STEM fields as their target consumer?  I keep hoping I will find that one perfect application that will be the magic solution.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found a one-platform-fits-all application yet, but one of the applications I have used with great success is the Canvas Discussion Board Assignments.  I like to assign one of these each week for my Intro Physics Courses (this is in addition to the standard homework problem set for that week).  I assign a single round-robin style problem that covers a simple problem type from the previous week.  The students have a full week to complete the assignment.

The problem is designed as a story problem so that each student calculates one part of the story, the next student starts their work using the results of the previous student.  It is a fun and engaging way to get the students to perform repetitive rigorous mathematical practice.  By checking the previous student’s work and then continuing the problem they repeat the work twice but with different scenarios.

Benefits of these assignments

  1. These assignments are easily graded in Canvas’ Speed Grader.
  2. They give students the opportunity to add some humor into their work.
  3. They allow the students who are struggling to look to other students’ work for guidance.
  4. Students can ask questions of other students within the discussion for everyone to see and contribute.
  5. They are designed such that students can contribute their work at the time that best fits their schedule.
  6. They provide repetitive practice for a previously learned problem type.
  7. Students can use LaTeX or images of their mathematical work on either paper or a digital pen tablet.

Improvements for these assignments

  1. It would be great if students could write with a tablet directly onto the discussion input.
  2. Some image file types have to be downloaded to your computer to open… not at all ideal as I want students to easily be able to scroll through each other’s work!

Setup Recommendations

You may want to include a couple preliminary pages in your course’s introductory module to help students out with this and other digital STEM assignments:

  1. A page on how to capture legible images of their written work.
  2. A page on how to use the discussion board interface, including the equation editor and advanced LaTeX commands that are relevant for your course.

Example Problem

In this activity, we are going to be putting into practice what you have learned about 1-dimensional constant acceleration motion.  Together the class will calculate, my guinea pig, Fluffernutter’s harrowing expedition in his travel ball.

Fluffernutter, the guinea pig in his travel ball

To do this, you are each challenged to save Fluffernutter from some imminent danger through one displacement acceleration.  Fluffernutter may need to slow down or speed up in the direction he is currently traveling.  To complete this activity, you must do each of the below steps:

  1. You must double-check the previous student’s work and make note of any errors.  If you find an error, use your corrected values.
    • Your double-check is limited to the student just before your work, you do not need to check student work further back in Fluffernutter’s motion.
    • The first student to respond should return later to double-check the next student’s work as there is no previous student.
  2. You must use the final position and velocity calculated by the previous student as your starting position and velocity for Fluffernutter (or your corrected value for the position if an error exists).
    • The first student to respond should use the position and velocity Fluffernutter has in the image below for starting values.
  3. There are many perils in the wide world for a little guinea pig in a travel ball.  You must state
    • what is Fluffernutter avoiding that is dangerous (Rules of Civil Discourse Apply – keep it G or PG-rated), and 
    • whether Fluffernutter needs to slow down or speed up AND therefore whether the acceleration is positive or negative (REMEMBER – to slow down the acceleration must point opposite the current velocity and to speed the acceleration must point in the same direction as the current velocity.)
  4. You must choose and state an acceleration in units of m/s2 [read: meters per second squared] (don’t forget the acceleration can be in either pointing in the positive or the negative direction).
  5. Then you must choose and state a final velocity for Flutternutter in units of m/s after he has avoided the peril.
  6. You must calculate Fluffernutter’s final position (in units of meters) after his constant acceleration evasion motion given his initial velocity, final velocity, initial position, and acceleration values.
    • Show your work (including the check of the previous student’s work) in the text editor or as an embedded image (the rectangle with the mountain and sun icon in the response editor window options) of written work on paper.
  7. In the case that two students post a response at the same time, use the first student’s final position to continue Fluffernutter’s harrowing expedition.
    • If you are the second student in the double response you can leave your response as is, you have completed the activity.
Fluffernutter is shown in his ball moving in the positive x-direction. He is shown to be at a position of 2 meters i-hat at the same moment he is traveling with a velocity of 1 meter per second i-hat
Fluffernutter is shown in his ball moving in the positive x-direction.  He is shown to be at a position of 2 meters i-hat at the same moment he is traveling with a velocity of 1 meter per second i-hat.]

Assignment Wrap Up

During Fluffernutter’s epic adventure students had him roll from a frog, run toward a bunny friend, flee an angry bee, avoid hitting a toy train, … it was an exciting trip with many varied and heroic accelerations!

A Guide on How to Make a Graded Discussion Board in Canvas

What rigorous STEM assignments have you assigned that you thought worked out really well??? Please share them below!  I would love to hear everyone’s ideas!

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