Hooking Students on STEM: Going Gaga (Part 3 of 4)

If you’re looking for a project sure to engage your middle school students, you might want to think about going gaga. Nope, not going crazy or impersonating a certain singer, but hooking your students with a new old game that was imported from Israel to the United States in the 60s.

Essentially, gaga is a variation on dodge ball that has been called a kinder version of that favorite childhood sport.

Here’s a description from Wikipedia:

Gaga is played in a large fenced in area (usually an octagon or hexagon) called a gaga pit. The gaga pit generally consists of flat walls atop a smooth dirt, turf, or sand surface. The gaga ball can vary in size and form, generally ranging from a foam dodgeball to a rubber kickball. The game begins when one player throws the gaga ball into the air; while their backs are against the wall, the players shout “Ga” on each of the first three bounces. After three bounces, the ball is in play, and the players may leave the wall and “hit” the ball at each other in the pit. A player who is hit by the ball or breaks a rule is eliminated and must leave the game. Players may not “hit” the ball twice in a row, and a player who causes the ball to leave the pit is out. When the ball is caught in the air on a fly, the last person to hit the ball is out.

You can see a video clip of gaga with the rules explained here.

So, let me introduce you to STEM Institute faculty member Howie Templer and his 5th grade students and share some of his ideas for how you can replicate their very cool project. The local paper, The Highland Park Landmark, described what happened:

“When Howie Templer’s fifth-grade class was denied construction of an outdoor game court due to “maintenance and liability” issues by District 112, they didn’t take no for an answer.

Instead, the fifth graders took matters into their own hands and constructed a presentation that was brought before district board members on a special meeting on May 26 for a gaga pit, which is a dodgeball-like game played within a gated area.

From architectural design to budget costs and even a thorough explanation of specific benefits, the Oak Terrace fifth-grade class’s presentation to the District 112 board of education was conducted with the idea in mind that they would be able to reverse an earlier decision of the board. And they got their wish, plus one additional gaga pit – doubling the students’ expectations.”

The GAGA TEAM with Howie Templer at the back in front of the screen.

The Gaga Team with Howie Templer (back row, front of screen)

When his students approached him with the idea of getting the school board to change its mind and approve the construction of a gaga pit, Howie Templer’s response was, “That’s great. I can connect a lot of math concepts to it. I’m always looking for application opportunities for math.” From using the Pythagorean theorem to design the pit to calculating the costs of doing so, Templer was able to incorporate many core concepts of the fifth-grade curriculum in the project. He relished the opportunity to provide his students with a real-world problem to attack, and they rose to the occasion, with each student assuming a different role in seeing the project through to completion. Clearly, there was more than math involved. The project honed the students’ entrepreneurial skills as they researched gaga pits at other schools, created a poster presentation, acquired financial donations for the project, and marshaled support in the community prior to pitching the idea to the previously resistant board.

I interviewed Templer about the gaga pit project, so that other teachers interested in replicating it or doing a similar project would have guidance from someone who has already traveled that road.

Other than using the Pythagorean theorem and calculating costs, what other math and science concepts were you able to incorporate in the project? How about engineering and technology? Was this a full-fledged STEM activity?

The project connected and enriched all of the geometry concepts I already planned to teach and incorporated many STEM components. The students already knew the names of different shapes, based on number of sides and angles, and could find the area of rectangles and triangles. When this project began I handed students a large octagon designed using K’Nex and asked the students to find the area of the shape. The location of the gaga pit was already determined by our principal, so it was important to develop strategies to find the area in order to determine what size gaga pit would work best. Groups used different strategies, including dividing the shape into eight triangles and adding the area of each triangle and creating a rectangle and subtracting the four corner triangles that would need to be removed in order to result in an octagon. We shared different strategies and then used an online octagon calculator to find the actual area of an octagon with the dimensions provided. The students found their percent error from the actual area (all groups were within 1% error). We were able to connect this to find the area of many irregular shapes by breaking them into rectangles and triangles.

After that, I challenged the students to develop their own formulas to find the area of an octagon given the width and length from one end of the octagon to the other and the side length. The students tested each other’s formulas and compared answers. Some of the successes included n^2 – ((n-r) ÷ 2) x 4 where n = length/width and r = side length. Another unique discovery was .8284n^2. A group of students discovered that a regular octagon is always 82.84% of a square that has the same length/width.

The next important teaching concept was to determine the sum of the angles of an octagon and how many degrees are in each angle of a regular octagon. The students would need to use this information to order brackets with the right number of degrees. I challenged students to determine each angle measure without using a protractor. Strategies included connecting the vertices to make triangles, making triangles from a center point and subtracting 360 degrees (the sum of the interior angles) or dividing the corners into triangles. The students found that each angle is 135 degrees and the sum of the angles is 1080. We practiced these concepts on several different shapes to develop a deeper understanding.

The students learned about the Pythagorean theorem in order to help find the area when only the side length of the octagon was given (and not the end to end width/length). In the case of the gaga pit, we needed to determine whether to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides or 10-foot sides. The students needed to calculate the area to find out how much space would be required for the pit and how much space would be needed from end to end. The students measured the length of the field where we will assemble the pit: it is 25.5’ x 56.5’. Each group decided which pit they thought would work best and created a scale model of the field with the pit using protractors and T-squares. We decided to purchase a pit with 8-foot sides. An octagon with 10-foot sides is over 24 feet from end to end, and that left very little space.

Using the program SketchUp, students designed a digital model of the space after the gaga pit was installed with the school in the background. In order to accurately create the school, the students needed to know the height. We used laser protractors at a certain distance and figured out the angle to the top of the school. Then students created scale models of the scenario to find the corresponding height of the school.

Digital Design Using Sketch-Up

Digital Design Using SketchUp

Were you doing this as part of the regular class time? How did you manage to work it into an already busy schedule? How long did students work on this project?

This was part of my math class. I taught a lot of concepts that connected to the core content I already planned to teach. It just took a lot of flexibility and creativity to reorder the material to connect with the needs of this project. The students all had unique jobs that they were responsible for preparing and executing at the board meeting; a great deal of that work was their responsibility outside of school. I didn’t give any traditional math homework during this project. Instead they were responsible for managing their time to create and prepare their scripts for the presentation, become experts on their topics, and know all of the content we worked on in class. We worked on this for over two months and regularly checked in on each other’s progress. There were lots of emails that were exchanged.

I see in the photos you sent that the kids designing on computer, Howie, and also using the telephone. What were they doing?

On the computer the students used SketchUp to create a digital model of how the space would look when it was finalized.

On the phone, students did a lot of tasks: The census collector cold-called schools in our area to find how many schools had gaga pits. He called 30 schools and over 25% of them had gaga pits!

Another student in charge of interviews spoke with two superintendents of surrounding school districts that had gaga pits to ask about their experiences, and he also interviewed a school nurse to find out about injuries and how we could help reduce them.

Other students called local businesses and explained the project. They were trying to get sponsors using a tier system. Businesses could get their name on a plaque and logo on a wall. The students raised 1,300 dollars — enough to cover all of the expenses of the gaga pit.

A good STEM project by definition includes technology applied in real world contexts.

A good STEM project, by definition, includes technology applied in real world contexts.

Were there any challenges that other teachers should know about beforehand?

There are a lot of moving parts and constant challenges. The biggest obstacle was when we found out that a gaga pit wouldn’t be approved at our school because of liability and maintenance concerns. I had already started incorporating the gaga pit project into math. This particular obstacle presented us with the most outstanding learning opportunity when my students used their voices to contact the superintendent and convinced him to reconsider. That made this project immensely more powerful. I will never be able to do this project again because it was responsive to a unique circumstance and opportunity, but it was one of the most fun and rewarding projects I have done. The students had total ownership over it and were completely invested.

As a teacher nothing is more exciting than when you can completely become a facilitator. I will seek out more authentic learning opportunities that can be woven into the classroom.

What were the highlights of the project?

It had a happy ending. The students prepared for an audience and executed beautifully. The school board members were so impressed with their work and are buying us a second gaga pit (based on the scale models my students developed, they noticed that we had room). No one saw that coming and it was such an exciting moment.

Is there any advice you’d like to share with other teachers on doing real-world projects like the gaga pit?

Organization at the front end is very important. All of my students had unique roles that they helped create, and they selected their own roles. That really helped with their investment. My goals are to keep my eyes open and listen to what is happening in the community to see if I can connect it somehow.

On Saturday, June 18, several students and their family members gathered to construct the gaga pit, with the help of an Oak Terrace parent who owns a local landscaping company. Howie reported, “it took some time and hard work, but the pit is officially assembled!”



Thanks to Howie Templer for responding to questions about this fantastic project and providing the photos that illustrate it.

Please leave any question in comments, or share your own experience connecting your students to real world problem solving with STEM.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


Leave a comment

Filed under children as engineers, engineering, gaga pit, math, Pythagorean Theorem, STEM education, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s