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Creating with Calculus

By Melissia Mason
Last year, we announced a plan to “go beyond” Advanced Placement™ classes, replacing AP with our own Emma-specific Advanced Studies (AS) courses. Over the summer, faculty spent time together in a coordinated effort to dream of and plan for advanced classes that are student-centered, relevant, and meaningful. Mathematics Instructor Laslzo Bardos was among those faculty, pursuing a vision for “going beyond” with AS Calculus.
When Laszlo Bardos talks about calculus, his eyes light up. That spark is a reflection of the passion and excitement he strives to foster in his students. He dreams of the moment when his students are faced with a problem and realize they can use calculus to solve it. It’s that moment of realization—creativity meets math meets real-world solution—that excites Laszlo about the possibilities inherent in moving beyond a focus on AP testing. Emma’s new Advanced Studies curriculum gives Laszlo and his students the gift of time and space to have fun with math.

“Traditional math curriculum is like being on a highway, striving to get from point A to point B,” Laszlo explains. “You can get from algebra to calculus in a direct route, but never see anything along the way.” He likens the journey to a cross-country road trip. “You’re driving right past the Grand Canyon, but never see it. You get to California, but how much have you missed by not stopping to explore along the way?” Although the direct route may help students pass a test, they miss the fun that can be found in “sight-seeing.”

Laszlo’s ideal advanced studies course makes connections between what students are learning and the things they feel passionate about. “Math knowledge is very fragile,” he observes. “Ask a student three months after a test and they have no idea what they learned for that test. There isn’t a long-term connection. By asking students to do fun and real things, we’re giving relevance and meaning to it.” In an Advanced Studies class, students leverage their comprehensive math knowledge—not just what they learned for a particular test. “When students finally get it and realize how math works in practice, that connection is burned in their brain.” 

Laszlo expects students to choose a field they’re interested in and use calculus to find a solution to a question they devise. When students come to the end of the class, he hopes they walk away with the ability to apply the principles they learned and the ability to actually make something—whether that’s a physical product or a complex analysis of a problem and its solution. From creating electronic circuits to solar ovens, Laszlo has experienced first-hand what students can do when they apply calculus to a purpose-driven goal—and when there’s purpose, the motivation to learn shifts. “In a traditional advanced class, the goal is to pass a standardized test,” he explains. “But if the goal becomes to explore something you’re interested in, that’s a completely new mindset, and it’s really powerful.”

Peppering his class with explorations and activities, Laszlo teaches students to think creatively about real-world challenges and how they may be a part of the solution. By moving beyond AP, Laszlo hopes that students experience the thrill of making things. “I think our Makers Space is very valuable,” he says. “Our society doesn’t necessarily give the message to girls that they can use wood-working tools and saws and drills and that they can actually make things.” Developing these skills opens up possibilities so that students have capability—beyond creating digital media—to develop prototypes, expand their skills in other spaces (like art), and create what they dream of. For Laszlo, “beyond” is the difference between having book knowledge and having a feeling of accomplishment and wonder in creating. “It’s seeing the power in what you can do with what you know,” Laslzo reflects.

Laszlo brings his own hobbies and interests into the classroom as a demonstration of what students can achieve. As one who loves working with electrical circuits, Laszlo looks forward to giving his students the opportunity to create. “I love so many aspects of making,” he shares. “I can’t wait to have students do things with electronics and robotics, to have students sew, crochet, and make things out of wood.” As a cyclist, he can apply calculus to determine how far he can coast if he stops pedaling. “Don’t get me started on differential equations,” he laughs. “You have gravity to consider, and air resistance… I can make this as complicated as you want. That’s what’s rich about this approach to learning—it’s much more interesting than assigning chapter nine, problem 13.”

Moving beyond the AP gives teachers the chance to focus on skills that are not covered on a test. “Thinking on your feet or working on a team, being able to communicate with other people, being able to write about what they’re learning,” Laszlo explains, “those are things that go beyond the AP test.” Testing doesn’t cover these skills, but they are key to a student’s future success. Whether or not a student ever applies a calculus principle to a real-life situation after his class, Laszlo wants to make sure they know how to solve problems. “You are going to face problems every single day in your career,” he explains. “Your job is to take that problem, see its essential components, break it down into steps that are manageable, and complete it. That’s what math is.”

As he looks forward to the possibilities of the new approach to Advanced Studies, Laszlo reflects on the best moments he experiences in the classroom. “When I see a buzz of activity in the classroom, where students are making, planning, collaborating… I’ve arrived,” he says. His goal is to set the environment where students can nurture creativity, curiosity, collaboration, experimenting, failing, and trying again. “At Emma, we’re so lucky,” he concludes. “If we give these students the opportunity to create, they will jump on it and do amazing things!”

You can read more about our faculty’s dreams for Advanced Studies classes in the Fall edition of Signature magazine.

    • Mathematics Instructor Laslzo Bardos

    • Mr. Bardos creating something that symbolizes his passions—a bike—out of materials in the Makers Space

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