This morning, as I was making my toast and about to put peanut butter on it, I was reminded of something I did early in my career in a Math 31 (Calculus) class. It was at least 15 years ago, and way before we had digital cameras or Dan Meyer, but I think it definitely qualified as a WCYDWT.
One morning in the early 1990s, I was having peanut butter and toast, and had gotten near the bottom of the jar. While scooping peanut butter out, I got it all over the handle of the knife, my hand, and then of course, my pants.
It occurred to me that the jar really was taller and narrower than it should be, and in a rare moment where everything came together for me, I realized that the shape of the jar was probably significant and we just happened to be working on Maximization and Minimization problems in Math 31. Since digital cameras hadn’t been invented yet, the only multi-media artifact I could take into my classroom was the jar itself.
So I took my jar of peanut butter into class, slammed it down on the table in front of the class, ranted for about 5 minutes about how mad I was at Mr. Kraft for getting peanut butter on my hand and pants, and then told the class that we wouldn’t be doing Calculus that day, because I had to write a complaint letter to Mr. Kraft. I sat down at my desk, and pretended to write, and hoped. It took a couple minutes, but then it happened. One student said something like, “Mr. Scammell, there must be a reason it is made in that shape.” Another jumped in with, “It’s probably the shape that uses the least material but still has 1 kg of peanut butter in it.” Then they argued for a bit, and decided on their own to figure it all out. They measured, calculated, argued some more, and then told me to write my letter, because you could hold 1 kg of peanut butter in a container that was wider and shorter so my hand wouldn’t get peanut butter on it.
Again, I pretended to write while I waited and hoped. And then they extended. One kid stopped the whole thing, and said that there must be a reason it was the shape it was. He observed that the lid was thicker than the other plastic, and therefore must cost more. They re-ran their calculations based on an estimate that the lid cost twice as much as the other plastic, and then concluded that the shape was logical if we assumed the lid cost more. It’s too bad that this was all done years before the internet hit our schools, or perhaps we could have quickly researched further to find out costs and contact numbers for Kraft.
I tried the Peanut Butter Rant several more times over the years, with varying degrees of success. Some classes got right to the one important question, while others took some prompting.