CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Laser light shows are no longer just the stage dressing for rock concerts. They’re also a fun way for local middle school students to learn the fundamentals of mathematics and computer programming.
University of Illinois faculty members in education and engineering have teamed up for the project, adapting a “homemade” laser light show machine and using it to teach coordinate math to students at Urbana Middle School.
Adam Poetzel helps an Urbana Middle School student tweak the computer code used to create his design with the laser light show unit.
Photo by College of Engineering
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The lessons introduce students to the same math concepts delineated in the state learning standards but in an engaging, entertaining way, said Adam Poetzel, an instructor of mathematics education in curriculum and instruction at the U. of I. and one of the faculty members collaborating on the project.
Poetzel, who taught math for 10 years at Champaign Central High School before joining the U. of I.’s faculty, created the lesson plan for the laser light show activity to show skeptical middle school youths that the math they’re learning has exciting applications beyond the classroom.
“As a math teacher, I know that kids often ask: ‘How will I use this in real life?’” Poetzel said. “When they use math in an activity that has real-world applications, it elicits that response I’m looking for: ‘Wow, I didn’t think you’d get to do something cool like this with math!’”
The students create a design of their own choosing, such as a heart or a star, and plot the coordinates on graph paper, then write a short piece of computer code that enables the laser to trace those points and create a light show of their design.
“We saw in the classroom that some designs worked on the first try and were exactly what the student predicted, but there were others where something wasn’t quite right,” said Joe Muskin, a visiting education coordinator in mechanical science and engineering at the U. of I. who is collaborating on the project. “But that’s a good challenge, too, because the student has to go back and review their plan and think, ‘Did I plan appropriately? Was I careful in how I coded?’”
“Those are some really good teachable moments – when their laser light show design does not correspond to what the student thought it would,” Poetzel said. “That’s when the real learning happens sometimes, because the student has to think more deeply about how to fix the problem.”
The idea for using a laser light show as an instructional tool came about in summer 2016, when John Roach, an engineering teacher at Morton East High School in Cicero, Illinois, attended a nano@illinois workshop at the U. of I. During the workshop, Roach did research in mechanical engineering professor Arend van der Zande’s lab, which has a confocal microscope that uses lasers to scan light-sensitive nanomaterials and solar cells so researchers can work with materials too small to be seen by the naked eye.
While brainstorming ideas about how lasers might be used as teaching tools with schoolchildren, Roach, van der Zande and Muskin realized that the confocal microscope operates very similar to the laser light shows at rock concerts. With input from van der Zande, Roach built an inexpensive version of a laser light show system using an Arduino controller, mirrors, Lego actuators, a laser pointer and fluorescent paper – components available at hobby stores for less than $50, Muskin said.
Roach used the device to teach high school students in his engineering class how to build the system. However, Muskin adapted Roach’s “hobbyist” design and curricula so that teachers could use the system to teach coordinate math to younger children.
Edward Lu, now a senior at Champaign Centennial High School, was recruited to write a computer program that enables the device to trace paths using pairs of coordinates defined by student users in the software code.
Recently, about 60 eighth-graders in math teacher Jason Pound’s classes at Urbana Middle School pilot tested the laser light show system and Poetzel’s lesson plans.
“Just by scanning the classroom, you could see how engaged the students were,” Poetzel said. “The kids were wanting to make their light show happen. They were asking questions. They wanted to make sure their code was right and their plans were good.”
Engaging, memorable learning experiences such as these “are seeds that are planted and can pay dividends later by fostering excitement about engineering, math and science,” Poetzel said. “One neat experience like this, it lasts, and it can impact students’ feelings toward a discipline and their educational and career decisions.”
Poetzel’s curricula can be adapted to varying levels of complexity appropriate for different age groups, van der Zande said. Middle school students can use the pre-built laser light show unit to learn math and some elementary coding principles, while high school students can build the machine from components, as Roach’s students did, to learn engineering and electronics concepts.
This summer, Muskin, Poetzel and van der Zande plan to share the curriculum with technology teachers in Champaign schools, with educators who attend summer workshops at the U. of I. and with pre-service teachers at the university to encourage them to use it with their students.