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Teachers from Appoquinimink High School record the popcorn-making process so that they can analyze the rate at which the kernels popped.
Quick, illustrate the statistical
concepts of binomial, Gaussian and lognormal distribution using a Galton
No? OK, then, just make some popcorn.
That’s all it takes, as 45 teachers from 11 Delaware high schools
learned during a professional development program at the
University of Delaware’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab) in January.
Actually, making the popcorn was only the first step in a series of
laboratory experiences designed for the teachers to try out and then
take back to their own classrooms to illustrate various concepts in
science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Thursday morning’s laboratory session went on to include gathering
and analyzing data from the process of popping corn and extending the
results to such topics as physics, probability, evolutionary biology and
The teachers will return to UD in June, with selected students from
their schools, to demonstrate ways in which they refined or adapted the
laboratory lessons during the second half of the school year. In the
process, they will share those lab activities and lesson plans with
their colleagues for use in other Delaware classrooms as well.
“But this week, the teachers are the students,” said Jon Manon, who is associate director for mathematics in UD’s Professional Development Center for Educators
and co-director for the state Department of Education’s Mathematics and
Science Partnership (MSP) grant that supports the STEM professional
The grant’s other co-director is John Jungck, professor and director of the DuPont Science Learning Laboratories, the instructional wing of ISE Lab.
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A team from Newark High School builds a Galton Board, which is used to demonstrate normal statistical distributions.
As it turns out, they pop at a rate — a small number at the
beginning, many more in the middle, and a small number toward the end —
that can be graphed as what is commonly called a bell curve.
“That’s why, when you wait for those last, slow kernels to pop, the ones that popped early can end up burned,” Jungck said.
The teachers also built Galton Boards, which are a 3-D way of showing
— by rolling small balls randomly into an array of channels on the
board — the same kind of distribution, known as normal or Gaussian, that
looks similar to a bell curve.
Teachers, who worked in interdisciplinary teams from each school,
said the lesson was especially useful because of its connections to many
subjects beyond statistics and probability. A key goal of the MSP
project is to find ways in which teachers from different science and
math disciplines can work together to show STEM connections to their
“The nice thing about what we’re doing today is that it’s based in
statistics, and that’s useful for analyzing data in so many fields,”
said Peter Yonko, who teaches physics at Newark High School. “So this
kind of lesson is very applicable across disciplines.”
For Appoquinimink High School teacher Samantha Neubert, the
experience at ISE Lab had her already thinking of ways to expand the
lesson into other topics for students in her Advanced Placement
environmental science class.
“I can see using this to discuss corn as an agricultural product,
biodiversity, how a particular variety might have characteristics like
heat sensitivity that would determine where it would be grown …,” she
said. “And I think this is also a really good way to teach statistics
and probability lessons. It’s much more engaging for the students.”