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Measurement: Math that Matters
Sierra College National Science Foundation grant uses catapult to teach applied math


ROCKLIN: Eagerly raised hands of engaged students jumping at the chance to answer how 5/8 converts to a decimal or how long a line is when measured with a metric scale isn’t a typical high school classroom scene. No doubt, the demonstration of a Bundt cake cut in half, then quarters, and eventually sixteenths to demonstrate how an inch is divided up and offered as prizes for correct answers built enthusiasm. These Oakmont High School students in Roseville were part of a Sierra College National Science Foundation (NSF – grant funded project to engage students in project-based learning to improve math skills.

Many adults wonder why reading a scale or converting fractions is being taught at high school. Although fractions and measurement are part of elementary school curriculum, students don’t have many practical opportunities to practice and employers report that new hires are often stumped when asked to use fractions, decimals, percentages, ratios and measurement on the job.

Lack of practice, fear of math and failure to connect math with real world applications is preventing students from taking enough math in high school and college to prepare for in-demand, highly paid local technical jobs. The Sierra College NSF project is testing how applied math experiences can increase math skills and interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers.

Steve Dicus, drafting, industrial technology and IB Design Technology instructor at Oakmont High School, is the first teacher to participate in the Sierra College STEM Collaborative ( NSF grant funded project. The goal is to develop and test the impact of incorporating mathematics operations into building the Tech-Explorer catapult ( Students use hand and power tools such as mills, lathes and drills to produce parts and assemble catapults.

Using 2D drawings, students convert decimals and fractions to measure in both metric and English scales to mark cut lines, axel holes and arcs on metal parts that will be used to build catapults. During production, students used calipers and protractors to check that their parts are made to specification.

Once the catapults were built, the students competed to see how far the catapults could send a ball. They took height, time and distance measurements; applied them to a parabolic equation; and then tested changing the launch angle, based on their calculations, to maximize distance. Through this project, students experienced why math matters when they saw it applied. It also demonstrated how a technician, engineer or product designer might use math on the job.
Sierra College was recently awarded the $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand its Tech-Explorer program that brings applied academics to middle and high school classes. Sierra College offers Engineering, Mechatronics, Energy Technology, Engineering Support Technology and other similar programs to prepare students for highly-paid, in-demand, careers in Placer and Nevada counties and the Sacramento region.
For more information about the Sierra College NSF grant and STEM Collaborative, go to or contact Sandra Scott, Principal Investigator, 916-871-2308.


Photos available by request.


Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies and Economic and Workforce Development
(916) 660-7801
Sierra College Training & Development
Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technologies (CACT)
  Placer, Nevada and parts of El Dorado and Sacramento Counties
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