The educational world is full of great, seemingly boring software. These are usually applications that are not the prettiest or the most feature-rich but have tremendous staying power and appeal. A great example of this is Oregon Trail. Not the flashiest program, but I still use the original Apple II version of it in my classroom, and it is still as fun as it was when I was a kid.
This week, to round off a math unit on geometry, we used a program called Geometer’s Sketchpad. Sketchpad is a seemingly boring piece of software that nonetheless has nearly unlimited potential. The program resembles a drawing program that allows you to make points, rays, and lines on a plane, program them, and measure them. Simple, right? Well, after getting a crash course from a coworker, I now think it’s amazing. It does for geometry what Excel does for graphs and Word does for writing papers. It takes all the work out of measuring and drawing objects in geometry and lets you play with shapes and constructions, testing out concepts like area and formulas. Pretty soon my students were drawing dozens of triangles, stretching them out as far as they could go, but the sum of their angles never changed. The only way that you can do this in a standard classroom would be to cut out about a million triangles out of construction paper, measure their angles, and add them as a class. This program frees up so much time teaching the basics and expanding on advanced concepts. Before long, my kids were programming pool games to show the angles in bank-shots and programming the hands of a clock. It also makes a great primer for computer drafting using Alice or Sketchup.
It does have a learning curve. I recommend you check out the website’s expansive resource center, full of lesson plans, or find any one of the great instructional workbooks on the program.