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Terror and the triangle

Fed up of measuring school buildings? Plunging down theme park rides and sizing up missiles can excite pupils about speed and trigonometry. Sarah Farley reports. Calculating the average speed or even the velocity of the Missile is perhaps not the dominant thought reverberating through your brain as you hurtle round the American Adventure Theme Park's heart-pounding roller coaster ride. But then you are allowed to finish your ride before you start the mathematics.

The inspirational idea of linking maths problems with something as eminently acceptable to children as theme park rides occurred to teachers in the maths department at Fernwood Comprehensive School, near Nottingham, who have developed the project with Granada Group, owners of the American Adventure, and Greater Nottingham Education Business Partnership.

"We were getting very tired of measuring school buildings," says Martin Roscoe, of Fernwood's maths department. "And while there are many places for school visits for geography, or art, or science, there do not seem to be places providing projects for maths groups. We are also keen to give the children experience in practical maths and we are interested in providing real problem-solving activities. When we first visited the American Adventure we just wandered around amazed at all the potential for the kind of practical maths we want to do."

Six activities have been chosen, based on the Missile, the Pirate Ship, the Rocky Mountain Rapids, Fort St Lawrence, the Runaway Train and the Lake. So as to make the tasks as accessible to as many children as possible, there are two packs, A and B. Both offer clear explanations of what to do, but Pack A, which is intended for up to level 6, provides more detailed guidance and has some parts of the problem ready completed. Pack B, for level 6 and above is more challenging and requires the use of more complex equipment. It can be further developed into yet more advanced problem solving.

Schools are advised to bring trundle wheels, tape measures and stop watches but the project is providing clinometers (used for finding the height of a tall building), theodolites (used for calculating distances and the heights of buildings or structures), and Ion cameras, which can record still video images of students at work, or assist in speed calculations. Images from the Ion camera can be put on to video tape or computer disk for the school to use in follow up work.

The Missile problem requires the students to find the height of the top of the lift towers of the Missile using a clinometer. Full instructions and practice exercises are included in the work packs.

In Pack A, one person stands on the path directly underneath the highest point of the lift tower. "You should be level with a white missile," states the instruction sheet. Person 2 walks back down the path towards Fort St Lawrence, keeping the clinometer sights aimed at the top of the missile tower. When the clinometer pointer shows exactly 45 degrees (Person 3 watching the instrument for the critical moment), Person 2 stands still. Person 3 then measures the distance between persons 1 and 2.

Armed with the figure giving the height of the top of the lift tower, the students draw a diagram, using scale measurements to find out real length, and given the necessary basic information on the full ride, they can attempt a series of calculations, such as finding the average speed of the ride in metres per second, or how far it will travel in five hours or five seconds.

Pack B Missile problem is basically as for Pack A but the students need to use a theodolite as well as a clinometer. The thoedolite is used to find the horizontal distance from Person 1 to the bottom of the lift tower. This information, along with other given or discovered measurements, is used to calculate the average speed of the ride. Students are then asked to imagine themselves at the very top of the lift tower, dropping a coin to the ground, and working out how fast the coin will be travelling when it hits the ground (a formula help sheet is included). Extension problems, for above level 6, involve drawing a distancetime graph for the Missile train, using the Ion camera.

"It is very difficult to explain what 'speed' means," says Shaun Baxter, from Fernwood School. "What does 10 miles per hour feel like, or look like ? It is hard to demonstrate, especially to children who have not the practical experience of, say, driving a car.

"We hope that by using the rides, we will be able to give the students some practical experience so that they will understand more, for example the difference between going along a motorway at 50 to 60 miles per hour in a car, and going round bends in a small train on a roller coaster."

A series of workshops has been held at the American Adventure for maths teachers and more are planned. One school that has already tried out the project with students is Kesteven and Sleaford High School, Lincolnshire. "Last year we ourselves attempted to work out some maths problems for students on a trip to the American Adventure. The packs that are now available are much more specific and it is good to be able to use the equipment they provide," says Lorna Mulhern, head of mathematics.

"We found the practical activities very useful, and it is a good introduction to trigonometry. The project was well-planned and the tasks clearly explained. "

As intended, the students did not attempt all the tasks. Some time has to be left for the main purpose of the visit, the sheer thrills and terrors of the rides - just for the fun of it.

o The cost is Pounds 4.99 per pupil with one teacher free for every eight pupils. Price includes loan of equipment, access to the TV and video monitor (not on Fridays), and a ride wristband which gives access to rides for the day. Further information from Eileen Allen, Schools Liaison Manager. Telephone 0161 828 5243, or Booking Department 0161 832 9090

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