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There’s no coasting through calculus

If you’ve been to an amusement park, you know that exciting and terrifying thrill of riding a roller coaster. There are enough twists, turns, loops, corkscrews, and flips in most parks to provide hours of entertainment. But what are the mechanics behind the thrills? How are roller coasters designed? What are the exact angles and measurements that will ensure both maximum safety and fun? These are the kinds of questions students in Leslie Gardner’s calculus class wrestle with. For the past two years, Professor Gardner (above, in plaid shirt) has given her students the challenge of designing and building a roller coaster prototype.

“They had to bring their coasters into class, then roll some sort of object, whether it was a ball or a toy car, through the tracks,” she says.

The students’ roller coasters had to successfully transport an object from start to finish, just as a real one does—which is a lot harder than it might seem. There is more to a roller coaster than just cobbling pieces together and hoping it runs smoothly. Dr. Gardner’s project represents the culmination of an entire semester’s worth of knowledge, and the results can be spectacular. Her students understand that this project is a real-life application of mathematics.

“It’s like a story problem but it’s not. It’s a real problem,” she says. “This is how story problems are in the real world. A lot of people don’t realize that story problems in the real world don’t come in nice, neat forms.” For Dr. Gardner, real-life application is essential to her teaching. “I really think the students need to get a dose of real math that is hands-on and not just ‘fake’ math. This is not just a made-up story problem; it is something that is real.”

‘When will I use this?’

Have you ever worked through word problems and thought, “When am I ever going to use this?” In Dr. Gardner’s classroom, these thoughts are far from the minds of students because she assigns such applicable, relevant, calculus-based projects.  UIndy students are grateful for professors like Dr. Gardner, who bring their passions into the classroom. And she’s passionate about math.

“I love math for what it will do for me,” she says. “And a lot of people really don’t realize how important and necessary math is. “When I realized how much math could do, it just changed my whole attitude.”

—Elizabeth Hale ’15