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This challenge has middle schoolers design hotels with cost-benefit analysis

Trey Smith wanted to find new ways to teach math in the classroom, so he organized the Philadelphia Engineering and Math Challenge as a lab for problem-solving-based approaches to teaching.

Student teams went head to head at the January 2014 Philadelphia Engineering/Math Challenge. (Photo by Frida Garza)

Roughly 40 high school students are giving up their day to do math problems.

They’re seated at round tables in the multipurpose room of Drexel University’s James E. Marks Intercultural Center, each with 50 plastic building blocks in front of them, and are waiting for instructions on what to do with them.

This is the second event for the 2014 Philadelphia Engineering and Math ChallengeThe students participate in four different projects throughout the day, including this engineering challenge and a task in which they must make a video to solve a math problem.

PEMC is a year-long education initiative started by Boys Latin Charter School teacher Trey Smith, with help from Drexel’s Math Forum and the Philadelphia Education Fund’s Math + Science Coalition and funding from Philly SEED. It’s the first initiative of its kind, according to Smith, who would travel with his students from Boys Latin to out-of-state Quiz Bowl competitions, but didn’t see any comparable programs in Philly.

At the front of the room, Smith takes the stage and addresses the kids. He introduces the next challenge: design a hotel that minimizes construction costs in order to get the greatest profit.

The students get a set of expressions, each detailing a specific cost associated with building. They need to come up with their design, build it and then calculate the profit correctly. They are essentially conducting a cost-benefit analysis, but they’re middle school and high schoolers—and they aren’t allowed to ask for help from the teachers and coaches who roam the room.

The day’s event is designed to allow students to think about math differently: rather than learning a skill and doing a bunch of practice problems, the students take a hands-on, problem-solving approach to math. Smith hopes that teachers will also benefit from the challenge, taking the tools they learn back into their classrooms.

There’s a Quiz Bowl portion to the event, but it’s stuff like the hotel-construction challenge that feels new and different to many of the kids.

Christopher, an 8th grader from Germantown’s STEM-focused Hill-Freedman World Academy, says he felt unsure about his math skills before he joined his school’s team.

“I don’t really like math,” he said. “But I wanted to get it better at it for high school. I decided to join the team and it’s been a lot of fun.”

This is PECM’s “pilot year,” as Smith calls it. There are two more events this year, on March 19 and June 4. If the rest of their events are successful, Smith hopes to expand the challenges so that any middle schooler and high schooler can join.

Find the PECM winners below.

Quiz Bowl
1st: Academy @ Palumbo
2nd: Boys’ Latin

Engineering Solutions Event
1st: Academy @ Palumbo
2nd: Freire Charter School

Problem of the Week Presentations
1st: Olney High School
2nd: Academy @ Palumbo

Companies: Academy at Palumbo / Hill-Freedman World Academy / Drexel University / Math + Science Coalition

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