Request Information

Envision Blog

If I Had a Hammer: Spotlight on Experiential Math Lessons

April 11, 2016

Experiential Learning Across the U.S. – Episode 8: Math Beyond the Classroom

“Today is the greatest school day I’ve ever had in my life,” said a 5th grader named Sam. He’d just built a house in his school gym.

In a national applied mathematics program called “If I Had a Hammer,” elementary and middle school students learn the essence of architectural design – fractions, angles, measurement and scaling – by using hammers and drills. After only two hours they’ve created a one-room wood-frame house that is large enough for the entire class to fit in.

The “Hammer” program is based on the premise that if children don’t gain math skills early on, their educational future will suffer. For example, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel advises: “Competence with fractions is considered foundational for learning algebra, for success with more advanced mathematics, and for competing successfully in the American Workforce.”

The Real World

“We’re just trying to show children what they can do when they apply math and science to the real world,” said “Hammer” founder, Perry Wilson. “You have to have a plan to build a house. You have to have a plan for your life.”

Mr. Wilson learned math on the job as a carpenter. He now takes his Hammer program, which also focuses on team-building and the value of education, to schools, museums and career centers. “What I want to do is to get curriculum to children that makes sense,” he said.

Lansdowne Elementary School in Lexington, KY is just one of the many schools that have elected to bring the Hammer program to their gym. “I learned how to measure inches,” said one Lansdowne student, “and how to work as a team.” Another 5th grader mentioned, “You have to know how to do all the angles and cut the shapes correctly.” Lansdowne teacher Kellie Derrickson, who teaches these math principles in her classroom, is now pleased that her students are “really making a connection with math in the real world.”

Building the wood-frame house is just one part of the Hammer project. Students also build model homes out of cardboard boxes, and draw up plans for their dream house. They watch videos and use an app that exercises math skills.

Lansdowne used a grant from a local nonprofit foundation to pay for the Hammer program. The school principal said she plans to raise money each year to continue the program.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

As steadfast proponents of experiential learning, we at Envision know that visual, auditory and tactile lessons make school concepts such as math more concrete for students. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) agrees, and elaborates in their whitepaper for educators called “Using Community Resources”:

“Good programs require access to the world beyond the classroom, so that students will see the relevance and usefulness of science and mathematics,” the paper says. “Moving beyond the classroom walls can diversify the array of learning opportunities and connect school lessons with daily life and real problems.” The researchers at SEDL suggest that schools take advantage of real-life learning opportunities through community field trips, as well as programs like Hammer.

For example, the SEDL whitepaper describes the interactions that occur when groups of students experiment with an interactive museum exhibit. The kids talk about what they see in the exhibit, and relate it to what they’ve learned in class. “They experience, create and solve problems together. Social discourse and direct experience help them construct an understanding of the phenomenon.”

More Ideas for Experiential STEM Learning

SEDL lists examples of community resources for schools in the Southeast:

  • The Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans has an air hockey table adapted for experimentation with angular geometry
  • The Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi  has a lab that demonstrates the physics of buoyancy and fluids
  • At the Harmon Science Center in Tulsa, OK, students walk, climb and slide through the Underground Tulsa exhibit
  • At the Santa Fe Children's Museum in New Mexico, children use homing pigeons to send messages from an outside site to the museum

As the SEDL stresses, you don’t need to have a local science center (or pay for programs like Hammer) in order to offer your students extra-classroom STEM lessons. Learning resources in your own community might include a factory, hardware store, seamstress shop or farm. SEDL’s whitepaper shares an example in which a local tile company invited a 5th grade class to tour their facility. During the tour, the company’s owner challenged the students to create a design for a tiled wall the company was contracted to build for a client. If the students produced a design the company could use, the store owner treated them to a pizza party. What an appealing way to learn tessellations!

Check out similar opportunities in your own community.

Just in Time for Mathematics Awareness Month

We bring you this piece on experiential math opportunities to help you celebrate Mathematics Awareness Month, April 2016. “The Future of Prediction” is this year’s theme, focusing on the ways in which math and statistics play a role in providing planning data and driving innovation for the future.

For more information, on the “If I Had a Hammer” program, watch their videos: “What We Do” and “How We Do It.”

Hands-on, real-world learning is at the heart of Envision’s mission. Please share your input, thoughts and questions in our Comments section.


post a comment
Leave a Comment