Sunday, March 15, 2009

DVD Review: Life By The Numbers #3: Patterns in Nature

While perusing the documentary DVD section at the Boston Public Library last week, I found several discs from a series called Life by the Numbers. I hadn't heard of it, but as I'm always looking for resources, I picked what looked like the most interesting one to check out. The third disc in the series is called Patterns in Nature: Biology and as I've been reading a lot about the mathematics we don't get to teach in school, my interest was piqued.

Life by the Numbers is a 2006 miniseries funded by the National Science Foundation and narrated by Danny Glover. Each episode is about an hour and focuses on how numbers play into some specific part of the world around us.

Let's get down to it: I think this particular video has some great moments that could be helpful in the classroom. In particular, the first segment explains and illustrates what happens to the surface area and volume when you increase the size of a given object, in an easy-to-understand way I hadn't thought of doing. This was always one of those ideas that seemed out of place in Algebra I, but nonetheless was on every standardized test. I've used hands-on lessons and major projects that resulted in fantastic student work, but we still struggled with the issue on the big test. That segment alone makes this disc worth it for me.

The video has a lot of cheesy music and computer animation that would make the people at Pixar cry, making it seem like it was produced in 1986 rather than 2006, but that seems to be the rule for educational programs rather than the exception. There are some slow moments or less-than-exciting scientists that make things tedious. Thus I couldn't recommend that you show the whole video or anything more than short clips of the best moments.

For example, one other highlight I wanted to mention was a segment about scientists using knot theory (which up until recently had no practical use whatsoever, an idea our students will sympathize with) to figure out how viruses work and eventually help cure diseases. This is the same idea that lead to the creation of Foldit, the computer puzzle game where users fold and twist proteins, and in doing so help University of Washington scientists fight the good fight. Ideally, I would show the segment and then have students play the game afterward to give a real world math connection they would appreciate.

I'm curious to see the rest of the series, as I think there's enough good stuff in this disc to believe that there's more potential classroom uses in the others. If anyone has seen more of Life by the Numbers, please share your thoughts in the comments. In addition, if you can recommend other, similar programs, I (and many others) will be very grateful.