Math Physics Olympics- A “STEAM” approach to project-based learning

CK Math Physics Olympics

One of my more memorable experiences in high school was participating in the Physics Olympics as a senior.  Our whole day was devoted to competing against our classmates in various physics-related activities.  The day culminated with a cardboard boat race after school in the swimming pool.  Everyone showed up to cheer on their teammates and watch the boats that carried two passengers paddling with cardboard oars navigating across the pool. The most memorable moments were when the boats would sink.  Ah…the good old days!

In the summer of 2005, my colleague (Debbie Kridler, 8th grade math teacher) and I decided to create our own “Olympics” using the knowledge and resources from my high school teacher and our combined math and science middle school experiences.  We are now in our 9th year of this highly talked about, eighth-grade event and have been selected to present our project at the prestigious National Conference on Girls Education hosted by the National Coalition of Girls Schools and Young Women’s Leadership Network in Philadelphia!

better conference pic

The Math Physics Olympics at our single-gender middle school incorporates the entire grade of 60 eighth-grade girls.  We start by breaking down the 60 into four groups.  We separate the class based on friendships, enemies, math skills, leadership qualities, drive, creativity and artistic skills, just to name a few.  Each of the four groups has a teacher that oversees the progress, monitors safety (with items such as the power drill) and helps with communication issues.  

Here are two students creating a catapult for our Math Physics Olympics.

Here are two students creating a catapult for the Math Physics Olympics.

The time frame is typically one month using roughly 3 hours a week to work on the various projects in school.  On the week of the Olympics, the groups may get additional time if they are behind.  On Olympic day, an altered schedule is created where the eighth-graders do not have normal classes and instead participate in the Olympics from 8:00 am- 12:00 pm.  A schedule of the event day can be found on this blog under the menu tab titled “Downloads”.

Right from the start, the groups are asked to assign a leader or co-leaders, create a theme that is math/physics related and divvy out the “jobs” for the group members.  The jobs include: banner making, song lyric writing, instrument building, egg drop device creation, tennis ball catapult building and Pringle packaging building.  These events hit every letter of S.T.E.A.M.!!  Too see a more detailed description of the events, click on the “Downloads” tab above.

Egg catching device made out of limited straws and tape.

Egg catching device made out of limited straws and tape.

Student created wind instrument made out of a carrot.

Student created wind instrument made out of a carrot.

On the day of the Olympics the girls arrive in their “themed” costumes and prepare their event materials.  Most of the activities take place in the gymnasium.  Spirits are high and noise level is in full effect.  We end the day, tallying up the points and announcing the winners.  The competition is fierce, but the girls love the experience.  They derive a greater appreciation of science and math and better understand how the two are related.

Thanks for reading!


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