Dog Math, Tiny Folded Rectangles Make for Good Career Discovery

Students practice balancing on one leg during “Exploration of Balance”

There’s magic in math. Just ask fifth-graders who learned top-secret information from Davenport University professors. “I could write some pretty nice stories and nobody would know what happens,” said Landon Saavedra, after learning basic cryptography from math department professor Shubhada Sagdeo.

The event was the first time elementary students paired with Davenport professors to work on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities and tour the campus.

“You will learn how spies work,” said Sagdeo, as she introduced the cryptography lesson. Cryptographers work in cyber-security across many industries, and the profession is one of many students can prepare for in STEM fields.

Tim Pennings, mathematics department chair, writes Fibonacci numbers
Tim Pennings, mathematics department chair, writes Fibonacci numbers

Like Sherlock Holmes apprentices, students from Townline, Bowen and Southwood elementary schools learned the art of writing and solving codes, figuring out their names and favorite sports in cyphertext. They identified Fibonacci numbers (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, with the next number found by adding up the two numbers before it) and its connection to the Golden Ratio, which is present in nature and art. They also learned that balance is determined by different parts of the body, including the eyes, ears and muscles, which can be expressed in the formula: center of gravity over base of support.

The purpose was to get them thinking about how math and science hold endless possibilities.

“I believe in exposing kids, especially at this age, to as many possibilities as you can. STEM is a great field and many of these kids have natural ability, enjoy the sciences and math, and don’t always know what careers are available,” said Diane Salinas, Davenport math professor. “This opens them up to different ideas.”

Math Is Everywhere

Students also learned that dogs instinctively use algebra. Tim Pennings, mathematics department chair who led the Fibonacci session, is known for getting students to notice math in everyday life. His dog, a Welsh corgi named Elvis who died two years ago, became famous after Pennings noticed that when Elvis fetched a stick out of the water, he was using a complex math calculation to get there by the quickest path. Instead of swimming straight for it, he would run along the shore first because he could run faster than he could swim. He was featured on the TV show Ellen, BBC, NPR, CNN and other media outlets.

Pennings taught students how to fold Golden Rectangles, which have side lengths in the golden ratio, 1.618. The ratio is found in many works of art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and in nature in flower petals and pinecones. Students worked on folding the tiniest rectangle they possibly could.

Sebastian Edmaiston tests his balance with his eyes closed
Sebastian Edmaiston tests his balance with his eyes closed

“It’s interesting how you can fold different pieces of paper into Golden Rectangles,” said fifth-grader James Campau. “I’ve always liked origami and this is basically origami.”

Showing students how math applies to real life is exciting, Pennings said as students eagerly workedon their rectangles.

“You get kids like this. They are jumping out of their seats trying to find the patterns… The definition of mathematics is the science of patterns. They are doing mathematics here just by noticing the patterns and trying to find them. There’s a lot of discovery to it, dexterity, precision. You want kids to be excited about math and learning and discovering things for themselves.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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