Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Newton’s Magisters Tormentorum and Their Hilltop Terror [Video]

UPDATE: Since this is currently the most popular post on my blog, I figured I should add the finished video.

Original Post:
A few weeks ago, just as I was beginning a 10-hour solo drive to visit my family Downriver, I received a call from Richard Renner, the series producer for Classroom Close-up, NJ. (Rich really seems to have a knack for catching me in the car.) I let the call go to voice mail, not because I didn't want to talk with Rich, but because I was still in Jersey and didn't have my bluetooth on. (Trust me, if the NJ State Police quota for "driving-while-using-a-hand-held-device" was one ticket per year, I'd be the lucky recipient.) Rich left a message asking if I could cover a segment for one of my fellow producers who had a schedule conflict with the May 13 taping date. Of course I could! As soon as I passed into the keystone state, I called Rich back to find out what sort of adventure he had in store for me.

Rich informed me that the story was about a trebuchet. My mind immediately jumped to France. Trebuchet sounded French. Must be a story with a world culture twist. Maybe a festival? I like stories about festivals. (Nello, our soundperson, always says those kind of stories "...film themselves.") Maybe there will be food involved. Maybe pastries...

Well, I found out that the word trebuchet does have some origins in old French, but it's certainly not a tasty dessert. Turns out this is a trebuchet...

A trebuchet is medieval siege weapon similar to a catapult. Where a traditional catapult uses some some form of torsion or tension to launch a projectile, the trebuchet uses gravity and weights. It's a big lever that throws things.

The story is about six students at Halsted Street Middle School in Newton, NJ who built the trebuchet you just saw in that fuzzy mobile video. Apparently, building mini-trebuchets is a popular project in technology classes and these guys decided they needed one with more power. So they came up with some plans and convinced some local farmers to pay for the construction of the 30' device so it could be used as a pumpkin-smashing tourist attraction.

Needless to say, the crew and I had a fun time up in Newton. First, we stopped at the high school to talk with a physics teacher who devised a lesson around the device. Then we visited the middle school to sit down and interview the six magisters tormentorum and their technology teacher. Finally, we headed over to Lentini Produce farm to see the affectionately named "Hilltop Terror" in action. We then spent the next two hours launching pumpkins and assorted produce hundred of yards across an empty field. I even got to pull the trigger a couple of times.

I'm really looking forward to putting this story together for the show. It's scheduled to air for the first time on October 12 at 7pm on NJN, just in time for Halloween.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Poetry of Logical Ideas

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.
~Albert Einstein

Some of you might remember that I produced a story about the 2008 Moody’s Mega Math Challenge for a recent episode of Classroom Close-up, NJ. The M3 Challenge is a competition for high school juniors and senior where teams use applied mathematics to tackle real-world problems ranging from social security to the environment to the economy. The contest is sponsored by the Moody’s Foundation and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). It’s kind of like the 48-hour film project of math contests except instead of making a movie in two days, teams get 14 hours to analyze a problem, come up with a solution, and submit a paper.

Last year the students were debating the ramifications of increasing production of corn ethanol to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Initially, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a compelling five-minute piece about math, but it ended up being one of my all-time favorite segments (Just ask some of my Downriver friends who were at the bar with me a few weeks ago. I’m still talking about the evils of corn ethanol.) I guess the Moody’s and SIAM folks enjoyed the piece too, because they reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I could come to this year’s finals and do some interviews with the teams, coaches, and judges.

So that’s how I ended up at Moody’s headquarters in NYC last Tuesday for the 2009 M3 Challenge finals. This year’s problem was just as fascinating as the corn ethanol one. The students were tackling the economic stimulus bill. Would it work? Was it enough? Do we need another? Nearly 400 teams from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic had taken part and after several preliminary rounds, the six best were there to present their solutions to a panel of judges.

I can’t even begin to summarize the incredible amount of research and problem solving that teams put into answering these questions. It’s even more impressive when you realize they did most of the work in just 14 hours. In the end it seemed like most of them thought the bill was going to help, but more money would be needed to achieve the plan’s goals. It was fascinating to see how each team came up with a different mathematical model to answer the questions and how they calculated where spending money would have the greatest impact.

Before and after the presentations, the camera crew and I hustled around to talk to the participants about the competition, their solutions, and applied mathematics in general. Just like the previous year, I was really impressed with the students. I think one of the judges I spoke to put it best when he said that aside from the students’ math skills, the thing he was most impressed by was their confidence and poise in front of the judges. Likewise for their interview skills.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed meeting and talking to everyone involved in this year’s competition. I suppose I’ll be spending 2009 chatting people’s ears off about economics, but I can’t wait to see what problem the contestants tackle next year.