Saturday, January 19, 2008

TI Training: Our long regional nightmare is over

I've spent the last two days at the Region One Education Service Center, the professional development resource provided by the state, at a T-STEM conference focused mostly on training from Texas Instruments. I really like the TI-Navigator system, but for the most part these have been some of the most excruciatingly painful trainings of my career.

Friday was an awful rerun of the last few days I've been there. Most of the TI workshops are the same, as if they are trained by telemarketers and motivational speakers about how to distract people long enough to take their money.

Standard TI Workshop Agenda
  1. You help the instructor collect a bunch of data, and they graph the points.
  2. The instructor has you write and submit a linear or quadratic equation.
  3. The graphs are shown and they match the data points or copies a picture.
  4. Everyone is impressed!
  5. The instructor uses Quick Poll (the Navigator's instant feedback feature) to send stupid questions that solicit stupid answers, presumably to demonstrate to us how it will work in our real classroom.
  6. At the end of the day, teachers are pointed to the TI Education website and told to find lessons and calculator programs to download on their own (in other words, doing the work TI is being paid to do for us).
Recently, my district decided that we hadn't flushed enough math department money down the toilet and purchased ANOTHER guaranteed-to-work, solution-to-all-our-problems, superfun-engaging-the kids will love it!-hands-on-ready-to-use curriculum program called SureScore. Of course, we're just getting this stuff in January, when we're already overwhelmed with everything, but that's another story.

I learned that SureScore tried to integrate their paper materials with the TI-Navigator, so that students could complete their activities through the system. The problem is, it doesn't actually work! It's like no one at SureScore even owns a TI calculator. I picked a random activity and completed the entire exercise on my calculator. First off, it was difficult to type in the answers, because the calculator would automatically switch back and forth between typing letters and numbers, which would be crippling if trying to use it with my students. Despite this, I was pretty sure I had done everything correctly, but when I scored it, I had only gotten 23% right.

When I compared my answers to the "correct" answers, I realized the multitude of problems: For any answer that had a thousands place or higher, the "correct" answer required a comma. Since my answers had no commas, each one was marked wrong. Some answers were expressions like "170 + x", but because I didn't put spaces between the 170, plus sign, and x, it was marked wrong (not to mention that x + 170 would have also been marked wrong).

Worst of all, there were some answers that were simplified square roots (like 2√2). Once again I had the answer correct, but I had typed it as 2√(2), because that is the only way to type a square root symbol on a TI-83/84 calculator. In other words, it is impossible to get the correct answer! If I had this many problems on just one randomly picked set of questions, imagine how difficult this would be for my students. What a waste of time and money.

Today was slightly better. I saw one project which seems like fun, called the Barbie Bungee, in which Barbie dolls are tied to rubber band bungee cords and you record the number of rubber bands (independent variable) and the maximum distance she falls (dependent variable). When you plot the data, it is a linear relationship, and students create an equation and make and test predictions for different distances. In the end it's another way to go about making a linear equation, but one that's actually exciting.

I also went to a session on paper folding, which was really exciting because of the presenter and the fascinating problem he presented (similar to this). It would be very exciting for math junkies, but was simply too difficult and time consuming for my Algebra I students. I could do it in an AP Geometry or Calc class. I also was exposed to Cabri Jr, a geometry calculator program which is available for free on TI's Education website. It is fairly intuitive and I'll figure out how to use it in the classroom.

There was a few hours of the Standard TI Workshop Agenda described above, but otherwise I am happy to report I got something out of the last day. I just wish the preceding eight days had been as helpful.