Robitarod!

So this year everything I’ve touched has gone to the dogs… and that includes my Robotics Club!

I work with a group of fourteen fourth and fifth graders once a week after school using Lego Mindstorms to begin to explore programing and basic robotics.  We usually spend the fall semester learning how to program and use the various sensors we can add  to the robot and then in the spring semester we compete in a series of challenges… a Summo Tournament, a Triathalon, and this year the Robitarod!

The boys were presented with seven Iditarod themed challenges and then given six weeks to earn as many points at they could.  Everyone started by building their sleds.  They first needed to determine if the robot itself was going to be the dog or the sled.  Then they needed to create the sled.  The official Iditarod Race Rules have this to say about the sleds:

Rule 15 — Sled: A musher has a choice of sled subject to the requirement that some type of sled or toboggan must be drawn. The sled or toboggan must be capable of hauling any injured or fatigued dogs under cover, plus equipment and food. Braking devices must be constructed to fit between the runners and not to extend beyond the tails of the runners.

Therefore, we asked the boys to accommodate for the following in their sleds:

  1. There must be space in the sled for a dog to fit.
  2. There must be an allocated place for the musher to stand.
  3. There must be allowances for where equipment and food would be carried.
  4. There must be evidence of a braking device between the runners of the sled.

From there, they got to determine which of the remaining six events to attempt and in what order.   The challenges required them to take what they had learned in programing, using sensors, and from the earlier challenges and use them in new and unique ways… and all while pulling a sled!  Some teams quickly learned that attaching a sled to their robot really changed the game.  It seemed to affect the drivability and maneuverability of the sled.

It was also a great exercise in strategy.  There just wasn’t enough time to do all of the challenges.  So, the question becomes do you do the ones you perceive as being the easiest first?  Or the ones that are worth the most points first?  And then somewhere near the end, one team started going for partial points at several stations and that proved to be a game changer too!

We had a great time with our robotic dog teams!  You can read descriptions of all of the challenges here: Robitarod

Scaling Up the Trail

Several years ago, we realized that we were never getting to the Geometry Unit that inevitably occurred at the end of the math book and therefore at the end of the school year. We decided to break up the unit into pieces and teach it periodically throughout the year. Inspired by the book Mathematical Art-O- Facts: Activities to Introduce, Reinforce, or Assess Geometry & Measurement Skills by Catherine Johns Kuhns, we decided to accomplish this by using art to create monthly geometry projects. This allowed us to teach the geometry skills throughout the year in a hands-on way that require the students to use the new geometry skills immediately to create something.

When I returned to my school from my Alaskan adventure, the boys were returning from Spring Break and the time was prime for a hands-on Iditarod related geometry project. We spent a week enlarging Jon Van Zyle’s print A Nod to the Past to six times the original size! We had a wonderful discussion about the piece of art, the feelings it evoked, and the Iditarod memorabilia it featured. We worked as a full class to compete the project. While each boy was responsible for completing one square of the enlargement, the nature of the project was such that they naturally checked in with each other to see if their measurements were matching up. There were wonderful discussions and coaching between boys about how they were solving the problems. When it came time to color their masterpiece, leaders naturally rose to the top as they discussed shading and combining colors to achieve the desired results. It was nice to see the artistic boys have a chance to be the leaders. The finished product in the hallway is a show stopper and visitors often stop by to admire it and ask questions! Attached is a lesson plan to explain how we completed the project.

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Scaling Up the Trail Lesson Plan

As the Trail Turns

Meanwhile Back at School:

Rule Number 6 deals with timing on the race:

Rule 6 — Race Timing: For elapsed time purposes, the race will be a common start event. Each

musher’s total elapsed time will be calculated using 2:00 p.m., Sunday March 2, 2014, as the starting

time. Teams will leave the start and the re-start in intervals of not less than two minutes, and the time

differential will be adjusted during the twenty-four (24) hour mandatory layover. No time will be kept

at the Saturday event.

2013-03-02 16.36.50-2

And, a lot of the data generated by the race deals with time – time on the trail, time in the checkpoints, required resting times, starting times, differential times, and so on.

So we are all about time, military time, and elapsed time these days in math class.  We started the week by reviewing telling time.  We talked a lot about how accurate the checkers have to be in recording the in and out times of the mushers because every minute counts!  I gave each student a sticky note to keep on their desk and periodically throughout the day I rang a bell and yelled out things like “Monica Zappa just checked in to Unakaleet.  What time is it?”  “Ken Anderson is pulling out of Safety.  What time is it?”  “Dallas Seavey just arrived at Shaktoolik.  What time is it? He wants to stay ten minutes.  What time is he leaving?”  The students recorded the answers on their sticky notes and later in the day we checked their results.

Something you will need to teach your students about time in order for them analyze the timing information they find on the Iditarod paperwork is military time.  The time is reported on the official reports in military time to avoid confusion.  Here is an assignment you can use for converting military time to conventional time:  Time on the Trail CW

We also delve into calculating elapsed time, which traditionally is a challenge for some of my third graders.  Here is an assignment for calculating elapsed time:  Passing Time at the Checkpoints Classwork

To wrap everything up, I challenge the students to calculate their musher’s average time on the trail for the first seven legs of the race. This requires them to convert military time to standard time, calculate the elapsed time, and find the average.  We compare our results and discuss whether this information is helpful in predicating the outcome of the race.  After the first seven legs it is really tough to tell what is going to happen!  As the Trail Turns Lesson Plan

And finally, here is a homework assignment to review elapsed time.  Ken Anderson Homework

What’s an Average Leg?

2013-03-03 20.38.15-1Meanwhile Back at School:  This week we have been exploring mean, median, mode, and range.  This skill have been removed from the elementary curriculum by the Common Core, but for me, it’s still a great way to review the basic operations and it’s pretty essential to understand some of the data that comes out of the Iditarod.

So, this week we have been analyzing data galore.  We have calculated the mean, median, mode, and range of the overall winnings of some of the top mushers, ages of the mushers, and numbers of Iditarods they have run.

Attached you will find our culminating activity for this section of the unit. The students will determine what an “average” leg on the Iditarod is.  Half of the class will find the average leg of the Northern Route, half will find the average leg on the Southern Route, and then they will compare their findings.  They will then use this information to determine which route they would rather run on.  My students are usually spit on this decision, but their reasoning is always fascinating to hear!

What’s An Average Leg Lesson Plan

Tales from the Trail: Eight Gold Stars on a Field of Blue

Stories from the Trail:  Eight Gold Stars on a Field of Blue

alaska_02_256Eight stars of gold on a field of blue –
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you
The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes, and the flow’rs nearby;
The gold of the early sourdough’s dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and streams;
The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The “Bear” – the “Dipper” – and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
Over land and sea a beacon bright.
Alaska’s flag – to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.


Alaska State Song

Very few state flags have the story behind them that Alaska’s flag does.  In 1927, The Alaska Department of the American Legion decided to sponsor a contest for students to design a flag to represent Alaska.  Each town set up a panel of judges to judge the designs at a local level and then choose the best ten to be sent to Juneau for the final judging.  Some of the designs sent to Juneau featured polar bears, some featured fishing and mining, and many featured the territorial seal.  But the winning design that became the flag we know today was designed by a thirteen year old Aleut student named Benny Benson who was living in an orphanage in Seward at the time.  In addition to having his design made into the official flag, he won a gold watch and a $1,000 towards a trip to Washington, DC.

In this lesson, the students will discover the story off Benny, his flag, and the meaning behind it and then will create their own flag to represent their classroom.

Alaska Flag Lesson

It’s Crunch Time!!

It’s getting to be crunch time and I am finalizing plans for my sub for the time that I am away on my amazing adventure! 

Here are some things that I am leaving for her to do that you may be able to use also!

Math:  The class will be rolling along with our Iditarod Math Unit, most of which I have shared with you in one form or another.  And more will be coming!  Once the race actually begins, they will be tracking their mushers, updating their charts, and moving their pin along the map during their warm – up time.  In the meantime, here are some of the quick activities that they will be using as math warm-ups:

Week 1:  Mental Math Challenges:  My guys love mental math challenges.  These test their mental math skills AND their Iditarod knowledge!  Iditarod Themed Mental Math Challenges

Week 2:  Create a Number Challenges:  Students will create number sentences to form Iditarod important numbers.  Create a Number Challenges

Reading:  My boys will be reading Mystery on the Iditarod Trail by Carole Marsh. I’m surprised to say that I’ve never actually taught this unit to my class!  I’ve been in Alaska for the Iditarod during this book for the last three years!  In any event, that’s why it’s pretty much a stand along unit!  It’s a third-fifth grade reading level, but others would enjoy it as well.  There is a national park tie in with Kenai Fjords National Park as the characters visit the park in the novel.  Challenge you kids to earn their Junior Ranger Badge from there as they read the book!!

 Mystery on the Trail – unit

sled directions

Writing Workshop:  The boys will be working on writing fables, specifically pourquoi stories, or stories that explain something.  Their mentor text will be Aurora, A Tale of the Northern Lights by Mindy Dwyer.  This book explains that the Northern Lights were formed when a girl named Aurora follows a caribou into the Land of Darkness, finding her courage, and creating the Northern Lights in the process.  They will also look at Northern Lights A to Z also by Mindy Dwyer to see some explanations for the Northern Lights from other cultures.

Of course, I anticipate they will spend the majority of their time sitting by the Skype phone waiting for me to call!

More on the Weather

The weather continues to be the big story as we prepare for this year’s Iditarod.  It seems like the world has turned upside down… at least it looks that way on our weather graph!  The line tracking the temperatures in Baltimore keeps dropping down below the lines tracking the Alaska weather!

My students have been learning about Heat Energy with Mrs. Olgeirson, the science teacher, and they invited me in one day as they explored how heat energy affects our bodies.  More specifically, they were looking at how cold affects the rest of your body.  The boys were easily able to make the tie in to the Iditarod and the frigid temperatures the mushers will face (well, we HOPE they will face).

????????The first experiment they did was about how cold affects extremities.  When your toes or fingers get cold, they send a message to your brain to pump more blood to that area.  To test this, the kids wrote their name on a sheet of paper.  They then plunged their hand into a bowl of icy water (about 31 degrees Fahrenheit) for sixty seconds and then tried to rewrite their name.  Their hypothesis that their signatures would be different proved to be very true!  The boys were really surprised about just how hard it was to hold the pencil and write their name when their hand was so cold.  Imagine the mushers who have to care for their dogs’ feet and all their other chores that can’t quite work with gloves on!

The boys wondered how the mushers warm their hands up, and Mrs. Olgeirson pointed out that when your hands and fingers are cold, you should move your fingers and not rub them together.  The friction caused by rubbing your hands together could actually create heat energy that could burn your skin tissue!

How else to keep warm in on the Iditarod Trail?  Well, animals have blubber or fat to help them stay warm, and people wear clothing.  The boys were interested to hear that the clothing doesn’t actually make you warm; it insulates you from the cold.

The students then got a chance to try out the idea of “insulating” their hands from the icy water.  Mrs. Olgeirson created a “blubber mitten” by coating one plastic bag with Crisco and putting it inside a second bag.  The student could then insert their hand into the baggie and plunge it into the ice bath.  The temperature of the ice bath was 28⁰F, but the temperature inside the “blubber mitten” was 60⁰F!

The boys really got the idea about how cold weather can affect our bodies through these easy, but effective experiments!  A special thanks to Mrs. Olgeirson for hitting the trail with science and for sharing her assignment sheet with you!  BLUBBER EXPERIMENT WORKSHEET