Fractals are fractious

(Thanks to Barbara for the title of this post.) Let me begin by setting the stage. On Friday I wrote about this year’s Fractal Fair. Groups of students (generally three in each group, occasionally two; generally juniors, but there were a couple of sophomores and a senior) researched a specific topic to do with fractals; created a product that might include posters, models, PowerPoint presentations, or whatever; exhibited the product at the Fractal Fair; and prepared to present it to their classmates this week. Everyone was supposed to be enthusiastic and upbeat as a result of the teamwork and the opportunity to show off their mathematical creativity. That was the theory, at any rate.

On Wednesday, during final in-class preparation, one of my groups suffered an all-too-public meltdown when two girls had a major conflict about who was doing what for their project. That was awkward and uncomfortable for all concerned, but it eventually got worked out by Friday. And then came the Fractal Fair, when a different pair of girls (not my students even) had a similarly all-too-public meltdown in the Library. Even the issues were similar: non-communication, different perceptions of what the product would be, different values concerning esthetics and content, etc. Drama, of course, is nothing new with this age group, but these reactions seemed a little excessive for a math project, though they were clearly genuine reactions. Why should fractals be so fractious?

Working together is difficult. It involves important skills like consensus and compromise. It involves continual communication. It involves trust. As I suggested last week in my post about Curriculum B, these goals are far more important than whether one can calculate fractal dimension or the rotation number of a bulb in the Mandelbrot Set. Part of me wants to just drop the issue and move on, but part of me wants to develop an important lesson out of the whole issue. Obviously I can’t reveal any more details here, in a public forum, but unfortunately I probably can’t even do so in class.

Categories: Life, Teaching & Learning, Weston