Playdough wins again

Recently I asked the boss for some money for some new stuff for the MLC: laminating for the new signs, batteries for the clocks, an HDMI cable for the electronic sign, new trays for the tea and coffee, and also new play dough. In her email to approve this expense, she said, “Play dough eh? Have fun.” You could almost see the smile as she thought of all the unusual things we have asked for in the past.

I don’t judge her. Firstly because our good Pro-Vice Chancellor for Student Experience is a most excellent advocate for good teaching across the uni, secondly because not many people realise just how awesome playdough is for teaching maths, and finally because we DO ask for some pretty unusual stuff.

Not that I needed justification for making my unusual request, but all the same I got my justification yesterday when the playdough came in handy in a way I had never used before.

A student was studying for her Statics test (“Statics” is a physics course that the Engineering students do). She was trying to understand why a particular force would produce an anticlockwise rotation around an axis in 3D. We looked up the right-hand rule in the book, and we drew pictures and waved our hands, but she just could not see it.

I was just saying, “You have to think of the object the force is pushing on as a solid box…” when it suddenly occurred to me that I could actually MAKE a solid box! So I jumped up and ran to get the playdough out of the cupboard. She watched nonplussed as I moulded it into a box, drew some coordinate axes on paper and plonked the box down on the paper.

“Here is your force,” I said as I pushed with my finger on the corner of the box. And lo and behold, it rotated anticlockwise around the axis! The look on her face as all the confusion melted away was priceless. Seeing this look on people’s faces one of the reasons I love my job, but it also totally justified spending the University’s mony on some nice new playdough!

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