Thursday, September 08, 2016

Drilling In The Importance Of Units, Via A Banana Bread

For some odd reasons, intro physics students somehow can't get it into their heads the importance of having units in their answers whenever they are called for. And they also don't tend to see why carrying their units during a calculation can help them check if they are doing things correctly.

I've had constant issues with students not including units in their solutions. Even after I emphasize its importance, and even after I explain why it is important, I still constantly get answers, even in exams, of just a number without any units for length, speed, etc...

So one day, at the beginning of a new session, I decided to try something that I hope would be memorable to the students. I normally have between 10 to 20 students in a class. So on the first day of class, I baked a loaf of banana bread (I am actually a decent baker) and brought it to class. I cut the up into enough pieces for all the students, warning them that it has nuts and not gluten free, in case there are students with such allergies.

I let them enjoy the banana bread and then, I told them I baked it. They were impressed. Then I said that I'll give them the recipe if they want to bake this on their own. This is what I gave them:

  • 12 butter
  • 1 sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 bananas, finely crushed
  • 1 12 flour
  • 1 baking soda
  • 12 salt
  • 12 vanilla
I then included the rest of the instruction, but that is not relevant here.

Of course, within a minute, I had students telling me that this recipe is not complete and vague. "What is half butter and one sugar?" someone asked.

"Oh, you mean that you need the UNITS of measure for these ingredients to make the banana bread?" I innocently asked. "Does that mean that without knowing if these are 1/2 cup, or 1 teaspoon, or 1 tablespoon, these number really a vague and meaningless?" I continued.

That was when the students realized that they just had a lesson. The lesson here being that the need to know the units of measure is (i) necessary and that (ii) it isn't exclusive only to physics, and that we all have been using these units of measure everyday without realizing it. Without such units, a lot of things won't make sense.

I can't claim that this exercise was effective, but I did notice that I saw a significantly lower occurrences of missing units in the students homework and exams. The few times that this did occur, the only comment that I wrote next to the number with the missing units was "Banana bread!"




noddeat said...

This is brilliant!

Douglas Natelson said...

Nice. Very nice.

soggybomb said...

Good thing there weren't theorists in the audience. They would have assumed you were implying that there were natural units for baking!