So I Played Pong in Math Class Today

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

That's right, I played pong in my Calculus I class today (assuming today is this past Monday).  No, it wasn't this kind of pong...
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...but it was based on that idea - with my own "twist" of course.  

My class had their first exam (limits - I'm still doing Calculus I in the "conventional" order).  Anyhow, I often try to do some sort of review game with the class the day before the exam.  During my couple of years of teaching, the review game was almost always Jeopardy.  The students loved it then (they even added me to the "Men of Mathematics" poster in the hallway as the inventor of math jeopardy)  Fun times for them, but honestly, Jeopardy is a total bore from my perspective...especially when done over and over.

A couple of years ago, I managed to create a working "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game, complete with the lifeline allowing them to phone a friend using their cell phones.  Great hilarity ensues when a team of four or five is all on the cell phone trying to explain (and then acquire) an answer to a question within the 60 second time limit.

Flash forward to last year, I added in a game based on the bar trivia game (referred to as Quizzo in my neck of the woods).  I guess the bar theme got extended a bit further this year with my Limit Pong game.


I found four identical boxes (I used baseball card boxes - something I have plenty of) and labeled them as Team 1, Team 2, Team 3, and Team 4.  I then took a bunch of styrofoam cups (approximately 30) and used a sharpie to put a point value on the inside of the cup.  The point values varied, the majority of the cups were worth either +1 or +2, though I scattered in a few +5s and one +10.  To keep things interesting (and to add some strategy to the game), I also added in a few -1s and -2s on the cups.

From there, all I needed was a ping pong ball (I happen to advise the table tennis club on campus as well so that was easy enough to acquire).  For the first time, I had to spend a bit of time going over the rules, but I imagine if I play the game again with the same class I could easily fit in a fifth round (and stay within the 65 minute class period).


The rules were fairly simple.  I split my class into four equal teams.  Each team member got a worksheet packet for his or her self AND the team got an extra "team packet".  I gave the teams a few minutes to work through the first page of the packet.  The goal of the problem solving round is to fill out the team packet with the team's final answers.  After time was up, the groups swapped packets and graded each other's pages.  At this point, I posted the answers on a PowerPoint slide so that students could copy the solutions on their own, personal packets if they wished.

Each round was worth a set amount of points (usually 1 point per question).  At the end of the scoring phase, one member from each team (this role rotated each round) came up to the front of the class as the "thrower" for that round.  Using the points earned during the round as a currency of sorts, the thrower could attempt to throw the ping pong ball (with a mandatory bounce) into their team's box OR they could select a cup (all cups were facedown so it was a mystery as to the point value) and then place the selected cup in a box.  Positive point cups go in their team's box, negative point cups get to go in one of the other team's boxes.  In my cases, each box could hold up to five cups, so once a box reached five cups you could stack (and therefore, replace less desirable cups).

We repeated the process three more times, with a different student getting the opportunity to throw each round.  At the end of the day, the highest point total (from the throws only) won!  

For the first attempt, I liked the game a lot (and it seemed popular with the students).

The good:

I did this activity in both of my Calculus I classes.  In one class, the students recognized there was a strategy in terms of whether to throw the ball in the hopes of scoring points and grabbing cups (in hopes of making future throws worth more).  By the way, a throw that lands in the box (but not a cup) was worth a single point.  You might even say the teams attempted to optimize their score by carefully choosing throws and cups.

The bad:

The other class didn't grasp the strategy at all.  The initial throwers all opted to fill their box with cups (as much as they could).  The next group also grabbed cups (replacing as necessary).  By the time the third and fourth throwers were up, they only had the option of throwing.  On the other hand, the average team score was much higher with this group - though rumor has it some of them were well-versed in the art of beer pong.

Things to try:

I need to emphasize the solutions a bit better.  Students got too excited about the throwing part and would sometimes not worry about problems they got incorrect.  I suppose that's the danger of any game where the students are emotionally invested, but it's still a problem that I need to fix for next time.  After all, what's the point of reviewing if the students don't make the best of the time and opportunity?

Game modifications:

The game itself worked fine, though I think it might be fun to have a bit more variety in terms of the number of cups.  Scores would have been more impressive if the boxes held more cups - some teams scored zero points simply because they were lousy pong players.  I don't mind skill having a role, but it didn't seem right that teams couldn't land a single ball in the box.  The students really enjoyed it when they grabbed a negative cup and got to place it in one of the opponent's boxes.  Both classes used some strategy in terms of the negative cups (using them to either wipe out big positive gain cups or to try and weaken the first place team).

All told, it was a fun activity that my students really seemed to enjoy.  I haven't finished grading the exams yet, so I can't even begin to make any guesses as to the effectiveness of the activity compared to previous year's games but I'm sure I'll try to make some conclusions at some point in the future.  Until then, if you have any review games or other ideas to share with me, please do so!


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