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The interconnectedness of things

Veena Prasad , Dec 6, 2012

FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS

NOT SO SIMPLE An open book exam does not mean transferring the information from the book to the answer sheet.

 There’s nothing like a bit of surprise to inspire young learners. Veena Prasad suggests simple ways to lighten a drab topic interesting activities to enliven a tough subject.The one thing all kids love is an element of surprise. There is nothing like introducing something unexpected in a long lecture to grab their attention.

Just as Spiderman swinging across an Ironman movie is guaranteed to thrill young moviegoers, so would a bit of astronomy in history, or tales of adventures in zoology. Cropping up in the following paragraphs are a few unusual thoughts in mundane places.

Voyages of unexpected discoveries


Despite the adventurous nature of sailing, that too at a time when half the world was not even mapped, the routes followed by European explorers such as Diaz, Vespucci, Columbus, da Gama and others made up one of the more dreary history classes that I can remember.

It was a nightmare trying to commit to memory all the routes they took and how far each one reached, and in which year.

As I discovered much later in life, while reading history simply for the fun of it, more interesting than the year (which students have to commit to memory) is the number of days voyages of this sort took. This may not appear as an exam question, but as readers will see, this leads to a better story, better remembered.

Vasco da Gama and his crew sailed for 317 days to reach India and the return journey took them a few more months. That gives pause for imagination — sailing for an entire year! What do you think the sailors ate? There was no refrigeration back then, how did their food supplies last?

It turns out that out of da Gama’s crew of 170, only 64 returned because the rest had died of malnutrition. In particular, many sailors had succumbed to scurvy caused by Vitamin C deficiency. The trade route with India had been established, true, but if each journey cost so many lives, was it going to be sustainable? As it turned out, the Spaniards found a way.

During their voyage to South America, they came across a crop peculiar to Europeans of that time — the potato. Its long shelf life, combined with rich stores of Vitamin C and potassium provided sailors with the nutrition they needed. And that is how, the humble potato, voyaging from the Americas to colonise agricultural fields in Spain, contributed to the dominance of the European civilisation for centuries to come.
Cook up some Math!

What could be more unusual than a mathematics teacher walking into a class equipped with cooking implements? This wonderful teacher walks in with a large bowl, measuring cups, tea spoons, tablespoons, and a bag of groceries. Without effort, she creates pin drop silence in the classroom.

As the students wait for her next move, she pulls out a packet of instant juice mix from the bag. It is a type of powder concentrate which when dissolved in water makes juice. She reads the instructions on the pack — “Mix 2 teaspoons of powder in 125 ml of water to make refreshing orange juice!”

“Let’s make juice for everyone today!” she declares, creating a buzz in class.
“How many glasses do we have to make?”
“25 students + 1 teacher. So 26 glasses.”

“Very good! How many teaspoons of powder do we need?”
The children whip their pencils out and do the math. The quicker ones shout the answer, “52 teaspoons!”

The teacher now shows them a tablespoon and writes on the board, “3 teaspoons = 1 tablespoon”

“How many of you want to use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon?”
The vote for the tablespoon is probably nearly unanimous, except for the inevitable non-conformist in every class!

Along with the teacher, they recalculate the amount of powder in tablespoons.
“17 and one-third?”

The teacher suggests, “Can we say 17 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon? Does that seem correct?”

Once the students figure out that one-third of a tablespoon is indeed a teaspoon, we can go back to our recipe.
“How much water do we need?”

You can see where this is going. An introduction to everyday math using a juicy idea! If the school has a little kitchenette, pour in some imagination to make these math classes unforgettable. Recipes for soups, rotis, jellies, etc., provide great scope for learning about ratios and fractions, and are rewarding too when the treats are consumed!

Pull down the partitions

Lately I have been thinking about artificial partitions we have introduced in imparting knowledge. History and Geography for example are so intertwined that we lose the big picture when we study them so separately.

We teach children to draw maps, but leave out the intriguing history of cartography.  Curious students may wonder how, before people were able to fly up in aeroplanes, maps were drawn with so much accuracy. 

The answer lies in taking a bold plunge into History and Science. One of the more interesting ways to do this is by recounting the story of Nain Singh the Pundit, who was employed by British surveyors in the 19th century to walk all the way across the breadth of Tibet using rudimentary instruments to measure altitude, latitude and distance. He measured altitude using thermometer and boiling water, and counted his paces on a rosary as he walked. But that is for another day. 

I remember Geography as a series of imports and exports to be memorised for country after country.  We teach children about the staple products of a nation, but ensure that it is made so dry that half the class is dozing before the list ends. They have no idea why some countries produce what they do, and in consequence, the richness of understanding the part that history also played a role is lost.

China and India happen to be the world’s largest producers of potato. But before the 17th century, these countries had never seen the tuber. It is not a native of these regions. Historians believe that European ships landing on these shores deposited some potatoes there. Over the years it became the staple crop, contributing significantly to the economy.

Remember how it got into European ships in the first place? Not just as a stowaway, but as a crucial keeper of sailor’s health, enabling them to make these intrepid journeys in the first place. Such is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things! And all we are talking about is a tuber. Imagine the wealth of our findings if we start to dig a little deeper.
     

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