This week I begin Exploring the MathTwitterBlogosphere. I’m looking forward to these missions and challenges because I need someone pushing me to find the time to write in this blog. It’s good for me. Like spinach.

This week’s mission: What is *one* of your favorite open-ended/rich problems? How do you use it in your classroom?

One of my favorite open-ended/rich problems comes at the end of a unit on trigonometric functions. After exploring, transforming, and applying trig functions to Ferris wheels, tides, pendulums, sound waves, … I assess my students’ understanding by giving them some almanac data of sunrise and sunset times for a specific location on Earth. Their job is to analyze the data and create a trig function to model either sunrise times, sunset times, or hours of daylight – their choice.

The data looks like this

and that makes it somewhat challenging for students to even begin. They are reminded that they should have “enough” data to know if the model they develop fits well. I point out that the times are given to them in hours and minutes, but that they probably want a single unit (hours or minutes after midnight). From there, they are on their own to solve the problem. Usually, they work with a partner.

In the classes that I’ve used this task with, we’ve modified the amplitude, period, and midline of the sine and cosine functions. We haven’t introduced phase shift, yet. So, there is also a reminder about selecting a convenient “Day 0” for the function they choose to model with.

What I love about this task:

- Students are talking math, asking each other about the number of data points they should use: “Should we just pick the same day every month? Are 12 data points enough?” or “Do we just go every 20th day?” or “What should we use for the first day?”
- Students are problem solving. They have to convert the times into a single unit. They have to make decisions about which variable to model, when to start, which type of model to use. Then, they can collect the relevant information to modify their chosen function.
- Students are using technology. Although they don’t have to, it’s really easiest to have the kids making scatterplots on calculators or computers and then graphing their model on top of that. Then they have a built in way to check their work – they don’t have to ask me (the teacher) if they are correct. It shows up in the picture that they create.
- Students think that working with trig models is really hard, so they feel very proud when they are able to complete this task without any help from the teacher.
- It’s really easy to grade. Either the model fits or it doesn’t. Kids turn in their data tables and work showing how they calculated the necessary values for their model. This precludes anyone from using the old SinReg command.
- Even though I’ve used this task for about ten years, it’s a perfect fit with the Common Core math standards (trigonometric functions) and practices. And since I live in a SBG world, this is a very good thing.

My favorite kind of assessment is one where students have to apply what they’ve learned to a different situation. Even though we create lots of different trig models in class, sunrise, sunset, and daylight hours represent a new application. And a new challenge.

I love this, do you have each student work with data from other cities? It would be a cool image (artistic) to show all the models for cities at different latitudes on one chart. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks. And yes, I have data for several cities from different latitudes and hemispheres. This way each team of students can work on their own data set. In the past I’ve provided students with the data, but I think that this year I will have them find their own location using the US Naval Observatory website. After all, real data is messy.

I never thought of combining all of the different models before. I wonder if that would constrain the students somehow – would they all have to agree on the variable to model? Or how they label the horizontal axis? Or whether they should work in minutes or hours after midnight?

What a great task to share! It is so powerful because it accomplishes so many things, and any task that is completely open ended and has students talking math rather than teacher talking math is like gold.. the fact that it can be used as an assessment and incorporates technology are added bonuses! Good work! :)

Thanks! And it gets better with each new iteration.