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From a Piggy Bank to the E.U.

Sophia started on her project journey with one very simple question. Could her piggy bank offer her insight into her grandmother and her travels?

Sophia’s grandma had gifted the piggy bank full of foreign coins to Sophia a few years back. “I always really liked the coins” explained Sophia, “but since arriving at Clark Street, I was pretty convinced there was some math related question I could ask and solve through these coins.”

So Sophia started with the basics. She organized and identified the coins. She made charts on currency conversion rates and valued the piggy bank in US dollars. She looked at historical data to determine the value of the coins from their production dates. She made charts, and diagrams and had pages and pages of journaling and thinking. “It was interesting”, explains Sophia, “but I wasn’t convinced I was solving any real math problem, and any learning I could do on my grandma’s travels was solved through a simple interview”.

Puzzled by her dilemma, she felt a bit deflated but somewhat satisfied in connecting the work she had done with some of her recent learning in math workshop around data visualization. It wasn’t really what she had wanted out of the work, but it gave her an opportunity to look at statistics and consider how to present the information in a way that was easy for an audience to understand, which to her surprise had her considering the significance of scatter plots, and box plots, and histograms. Ultimately she decided she was more interested in creating an algebraic equation to help with currency conversation, and so the math began.

In conversations with her project coach, CSCS educator, Corinne Neil, Sophia sat down and really digested the work she had been doing. She re-read and organized everything she’d written and, using colored sticky notes, lots of highlighters, and paper clips for grouping, she looked for identifiable patterns, noted any unexpected learning, and generated a new set questions.

What she realized in re-examining her work was that she had become fascinated with the true value of the foreign coins. What could she actually buy, if anything, with the money? How would the money be valued if exchanged for US dollars, or Pounds Sterling, or Mexican Pesos? What if the money was being used in the native country? What about a foreign one? Why was it that the ‘worth’ of her piggy bank was so much less than the value she placed on it? And what about these coins no longer in circulation, how was their valued measured? The questioning had Sophia in a flurry of ideas and sparked her down a brand new path with new research to be explored, new charts to be made, new thinking to be pursued, new data to analyze and visualize.

“Authentic projects can really go like this”, says Neil, “students begin in one place with an original idea that has them running, and running fast, then they hit a hurdle and figure they must be done or maybe they should give up. I like to tell them when they hit the hurdle, they’re probably at their real question, they’re likely at the beginning and not at the end.”

As was the case for Sophia.

In trying to understand the true value of her coins and whether or not she could buy a meal in any particular country with the coins she had in her piggy bank, Sophia ran up against a frustration. She had German Deutschmarks and Dutch Guilder in her bank. “I thought,” recounts Sophia, “I’m just going to drop the European coins from this project, because the Euro complicates everything.”

Following a model similar to that of the Agile processes community, in Monday morning Stand Up Meeting and later in a Scrum Feedback Session during Project Lab, Sophia’s peers asked lots of questions about the coins that had gone out of circulation. They wanted to better understand why Sophia wanted to discount them from her project. They were intrigued by them.

What ensued was Sophia leading the Project Lab class in an impromptu session of the basics of the E.U., how the Euro replaced the currency of many countries, and why the economics behind a common currency can pose problems. They were all enthralled, and Sophia was amazed at just how well versed she’d become in the topic.

In order to understand deutschmarks and guilder in her piggy bank, Sophia had to read and learn about the European Union; its history, motivations, current state, and Brexit. “I never knew any of this before”, Sophia says with a grin, “and I would never have imagined I was interested in learning about it.”

But learn she did, and she continues to do so. Sophia is now preparing a formal school-wide presentation on her Piggy Bank, the economics and history of the European Union, and the best country to visit to get a good full meal on the cheap.


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2429 Clark St, Middleton, WI 53562, USA

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