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Winter 2013

Wendt, Precisely

Doctoral student Karl Wendt, an industrial designer earlier in his career, says that mathematics is the foundation for how things work in the world. So when he gets his students involved in applied learning projects, they put to use the mathematical concepts they've learned in the classroom and gain a deeper appreciation for the discipline.

"With math, you can get precise," says Wendt, who taught applied physics and engineering at High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, Calif., before joining the Ed.L.D. Program. "Math allows you to be reliable and predictable. It lets you know exactly what material your 'bot' should be made of. And if you produce tight specs and know what it can handle mathematically, you can optimize your product."

Wendt is currently spending his third-year residency of the Ed.L.D. Program at Khan Academy, located in California's Silicon Valley, where Harvard Business School graduate Sal Khan founded a nonprofit educational company to teach myriad subjects through mini-lectures that get posted online.

Related articleThe academy grew out of Khan's personal online tutorials on math that he'd created for his cousin and posted on YouTube. Khan Academy now has more than 3,000 online videos in subjects that range from math and biology to cosmology and microeconomics.

Last summer, Wendt taught weeklong workshops for middle school students that focused on the inner workings of consumer products, such as a DVD player, alarm clock, and hair dryer. He had students take apart the devices and then create new products out of the pieces. The classroom sessions gave the Khan Academy staff a chance to see students at work, so they could tweak the video presentations that have an international audience.

Wendt says that the hands-on experience creates mathematical problems that the students need to solve. One newly created product needed three different voltages for three different components. An audio chip ran on a circuit that needed 9 volts, the micro-controller ran on 5 volts, and the motors ran on 12 volts.

Students also need to understand how the circuits are laid out, which Wendt says is based on mathematical principals.

"The components in the project are all things that require math to work well together," says Wendt. "With the device's wheels, you need to calculate the coefficient of friction and figure out what materials increase or decrease that friction. Add more weight to the materials, and you have to make trade-offs. Students get invested in these projects. They are creative, and they learn."