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03/05/14 9:19 am Age: 1 year

Mathematics Comes to Life


By: Taylor Sarrafian

Professor Uses Model Trains as Learning Tools

Using model trains, Ken Wiggins demonstrates math concepts in his classroom and in elementary school classrooms.

Every student has struggled with math’s difficult abstractions. Tangible models and real-world examples are friendly methods for making math easier. Ken Wiggins, one of Walla Walla University’s legendary mathematics professors, makes learning fun with model trains.

Wiggins first used the train as a conceptual model in calculus courses at Walla Walla University. The following problem was taken from a Calculus I assignment:

“A railroad is to pass through a valley. The track will slope downward with a grade of 3%, and it will slope upward out of the valley with a grade of 2%. Find an appropriate second-degree polynomial to determine the shape of the vertical curve that this railroad will make and the bottom of the valley.”

Wiggins showed students sections of model railroad track with dimensions proportional to the problem statement.

WWU’s engineering students respond well to such applicable problems; watching these concepts in action can connect students’ schoolwork to their future professions.

Years after introducing his trains in WWU courses, Wiggins realized that the tiny locomotives would be a perfect learning tool for elementary and middle school students. Children have a difficult time understanding intangible and invisible concepts. Starting this year, Wiggins has taken his demonstrations to local elementary school classrooms so children can experience math for themselves.

In recent presentations for Green Park Elementary fourth graders, Wiggins used miniature railroad landscapes to teach size and scaling. This served as an intuitive supplement for recent lessons in multiplication and division.

For older students, he placed objects of various weights onto trains before forcing them up tracks of varying slopes. The mini-locomotives’ changes in speed and power demonstrated simple algebra equations.Wiggins encourages students to consider careers in engineering and technology.

By showing children the fun side of science, he hopes to generate life-long interest in learning. This June will mark the end of his 34 years of teaching at WWU, but he intends to stay on track by engaging young minds in the Walla Walla Valley.

Published March 5, 2014.

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