Laser light show machine teaches students math, computer programming

by Sharita Forrest  /   Apr 20, 2018

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Adam Poetzel assists an Urbana Middle School student
with tweaking computer code for laser light show

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.

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 the Department of Curriculum & Instruction 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 faculty at Illinois, 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 Illinois 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.”

This summer, Muskin, Poetzel and Arend van der Zande, another collaborator on the project, plan to share the curriculum with technology teachers in Champaign schools, with educators who attend summer workshops at the U. of I. and with preservice teachers at the university to encourage them to use it with their students.

Read the full article by the Illinois News Bureau.