Growing flowers might seem an unlikely subject for a maths project. But as two PGCE students fresh out of a lecture on motivation at the University of East Anglia, we realised the rapid growth of the sunflower provided perfect material for a range of data-based topics.
Looking at our shared middle-ability Year 8 class, we realised its scheme of work fitted our ideas perfectly, despite the initial scepticism of colleagues.
At first the pupils, aged 12 and 13, seemed intrigued by two keen students taking over their class work. Ushered in groups to the biology greenhouse, some wondered if they were in a maths lesson at all.
But they proudly potted their individual sunflower seeds, eager to watch them grow.
Over the course of the term, the sunflowers were incorporated into several topics. The first national curriculum attainment target - handling data to investigate mean, median, mode and range - was a little slow off the mark. For the first week, the sunflowers were all of equal height - zero.
But at each weekly lesson, the students were amazed at how quickly the flowers grew. The privilege of measuring the sunflowers for the last five minutes of each lesson proved a greater motivator than anything we could have hoped for. Each lesson ended with a brief update on which student had the tallest sunflower, and its height in relation to the mean, median and modal heights.
The whole class became involved during the 10 weeks of our project. Each student owned a sunflower and had an opportunity to measure and record its progress. We also used the lessons to remind students of various units of length. As the units appropriate for measuring the sunflowers changed (millimetres to centimetres to metres, or inches to feet to yards), this was discussed and used.
By the time we were ready to move on to the next attainment target (working with databases), we had gathered a great deal of real-life data. We went on to create our own database using the software program Grass.
The students sorted the sunflower height data and discovered a graph to illustrate this information. They eagerly constructed pie charts, excelling themselves in their independence and self-motivation.
We also had the opportunity to teach place value as it occurred unexpectedly when making the database. The students were amazed to find the difference place value made to their plants' position in the "great height race".
At the end of term, a notice in the staffroom asked for display work for an exhibition promoting the Norwich Learning Festival. We jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate the effort and hard work put in by our class. The pupils rose to the occasion, giving up their own time to write about the work of which they were so proud.
Our display included a giant sunflower in the form of a patchwork. Each pupil had taken the time to complete a square during the Easter holidays. Many of our students with their parents, friends and staff took great pleasure in visiting their work, grandly displayed in Norwich's Assembly House.
Fired by our pupils' success, we aim to continue to experiment in our new posts and hope this project will encourage similar projects to bloom.
* Nicola Hill and Sarah Walsh were UEA PGCE (secondary maths) students.