Pi Day 2020 and Thoughts on Coronavirus

A weird pi day this year, as the world shuts down around us to prevent the spread of coronavirus / covid-19.

Things have moved super fast this week, from out-of-state field trips being cancelled a week ago, to local colleges and universities shutting down early in the week, to our engineering advisory board discussing backup plans (thinking of them as a good precaution but not likely to be needed) for a virtual senior capstone symposium on Wednesday, to Friday’s systemwide professional development being cancelled on Thursday morning so teachers could spend the day preparing “packets of work” for the unlikely event of a school closure at some future time, to the state superintendent and governor announcing school closures later that afternoon.

Our math department had purchased t-shirts for the math teachers (in whose ranks I am grateful still to be an honorary member), which say “Pi Day inspires me to make irrational yet well-rounded decisions.” Due to pi day falling on a weekend this year, we were all planning to wear them Monday. But now with no school Monday (officially we are out for two weeks, 3/16-27, though there’s every chance it could be extended longer; other states and districts that have cancelled school seem to be out for at least a month) there won’t be a chance to celebrate the day with students as I have for the past fourteen years. In fact, we didn’t have a chance to see our students after the decision to close schools was made, what with Friday being school-staff-only for professional development / packet planning, and school closure beginning Monday.

This could be the chance to experiment with online learning, but as I mentioned our district has gone old-school, requiring teachers to prepare (with short notice) two weeks’ worth of work to be photocopied and distributed. The argument is that using digital tools can increase inequity, since many of our students do not have computers or internet access at home. This “digital divide” is certainly real: many of our students do lack a desktop or laptop computer needed to run engineering software like Autodesk Inventor or CNC Base, or Python or Java coding softwares. But at the same time, I feel that inequity is also being increased by us only providing hastily-prepared written packets, while other counties and school districts do use richer online learning tools. Even a perfectly-prepared packet of work, that excellently scaffolds instruction for students from one page to the next, teaching new concepts in clearly written language, which may be a rich learning experience for self-motivated students with good reading comprehension skills, will not adequately teach students like those at my high school who read on an average of a fourth-grade reading level, who may not have English as their first language and are still learning it as a second or third or fourth, who learn more from demonstrations and hands-on projects, who demonstrate amazing ingenuity in the projects and work they are able to accomplish but often do poorly on standardized tests like the SAT, the engineering EOC exams, the AP exams, in part because of the heavy reliance on long questions and reading. When instead, we could be using online tools that allow for video instruction, interactive feedback, discussion fora, and screenshare videoconferencing to teach in a more audiovisual and interactive way instead of only relying on the static written word. I don’t know if the inequity of packets is more or less than the inequity of digital, and I know there is no good solution here, but I feel bad that Baltimore may be making the wrong choice, which puts our students even further behind.

I wasn’t sure today if I would do my traditional pi day email & blog post. I haven’t written a blog post since last pi day. And I figure, there can’t be any new pi facts or cool things that I haven’t already shared with you all over the past nearly two decades. Well, as I finish typing this it’s actually past midnight into the Ides of March here, though I figure it’s still pi day somewhere (specifically anywhere west of US Eastern Time and east of the International Date Line) so I can still count this as a pi day post. Although it hasn’t been much on pi facts & figures, more of a reflection on current events.

Some news about me from the past year:

I travelled to India with my friend Matt last April; it was amazing! Had plans to do one or more blog posts but never got around to it; you can see some photos on my instagram page.

I took a semester sabbatical from teaching to finish up my master’s degree in computer science with Georgia Tech. I am now officially graduated! 🙂 It was tough structuring my time so that I could work from home and not be distracted, but somehow I pulled it off. Guess it was good practice for the next two weeks or more of remote work and social distancing.

Anyway, hope you all had a happy pi day! I celebrated with a crab pie from Matthew’s Pizzeria in Baltimore. And stay safe/healthy/well!

Nick

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Filed under computer science, engineering, math, teaching

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