Category Archives: calculus

2012-2013 Year In Review – Learning Standards

This is the second post reflecting on this past year and I what I did with my students.

My first post is located here. I wrote about this year being the first time I went with standards based grading. One of the most important aspects of this process was creating the learning standards that focused the work of each unit.

What did I do?

I set out to create learning standards for each unit of my courses: Geometry, Advanced Algebra (not my title – this was an Algebra 2 sans trig), Calculus, and Physics. While I wanted to be able to do this for the entire semester at the beginning of the semester, I ended up doing it unit by unit due to time constraints. The content of my courses didn’t change relative to what I had done in previous years though, so it was more of a matter of deciding what themes existed in the content that could be distilled into standards. This involved some combination of concepts into one to prevent the situation of having too many. In some ways, this was a neat exercise to see that two separate concepts really weren’t that different. For example, seeing absolute value equations and inequalities as the same standard led to both a presentation and an assessment process that emphasized the common application of the absolute value definition to both situations.

What worked:

  • The most powerful payoff in creating the standards came at the end of the semester. Students were used to referring to the standards and knew that they were the first place to look for what they needed to study. Students would often ask for a review sheet for the entire semester. Having the standards document available made it easy to ask the students to find problems relating to each standard. This enabled them to then make their own review sheet and ask directed questions related to the standards they did not understand.
  • The standards focus on what students should be able to do. I tried to keep this focus so that students could simultaneously recognize the connection between the content (definitions, theorems, problem types) and what I would ask them to do with that content. My courses don’t involve much recall of facts and instead focus on applying concepts in a number of different situations. The standards helped me show that I valued this application.
  • Writing problems and assessing students was always in the context of the standards. I could give big picture, open-ended problems that required a bit more synthesis on the part of students than before. I could require that students write, read, and look up information needed for a problem and be creative in their presentation as they felt was appropriate. My focus was on seeing how well their work presented and demonstrated proficiency on these standards. They got experience and got feedback on their work (misspelling words in student videos was one) but my focus was on their understanding.
  • The number standards per unit was limited to 4-6 each…eventually. I quickly realized that 7 was on the edge of being too many, but had trouble cutting them down in some cases. In particular, I had trouble doing this with the differentiation unit in Calculus. To make it so that the unit wasn’t any more important than the others, each standard for that unit was weighted 80%, a fact that turned out not to be very important to students.

What needs work:

  • The vocabulary of the standards needs to be more precise and clearly communicated. I tried (and didn’t always succeed) to make it possible for a student to read a standard and understand what they had to be able to do. I realize now, looking back over them all, that I use certain words over and over again but have never specifically said what it means. What does it mean to ‘apply’ a concept? What about ‘relate’ a definition? These explanations don’t need to be in the standards themselves, but it is important that they be somewhere and be explained in some way so students can better understand them.
  • Example problems and references for each standard would be helpful in communicating their content. I wrote about this in my last post. Students generally understood the standards, but wanted specific problems that they were sure related to a particular standard.
  • Some of the specific content needs to be adjusted. This was my first year being much more deliberate in following the Modeling Physics curriculum. I haven’t, unfortunately, been able to attend a training workshop that would probably help me understand how to implement the curriculum more effectively. The unbalanced force unit was crammed in at the end of the first semester and worked through in a fairly superficial way. Not good, Weinberg.
  • Standards for non-content related skills need to be worked in to the scheme. I wanted to have some standards for year or semester long skills standards. For example, unit 5 in Geometry included a standard (not listed in my document below) on creating a presenting a multimedia proof. This was to provide students opportunities to learn to create a video in which they clearly communicate the steps and content of a geometric proof. They could create their video, submit it to me, and get feedback to make it better over time. I also would love to include some programming or computational thinking standards as well that students can work on long term. These standards need to be communicated and cultivated over a long period of time. They will otherwise be just like the others in terms of the rush at the end of the semester. I’ll think about these this summer.

You can see my standards in this Google document:
2012-2013 – Learning Standards

I’d love to hear your comments on these standards or on the post – comment away please!

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Filed under algebra 2, calculus, geometry, physics, reflection, teaching philosophy, Uncategorized

Volumes of Revolution – Using This Stuff.

As an activity before our spring break, the Calculus class put its knowledge of finding volumes of revolution to, well, find volumes of things. It was easy to find different containers to use for this – a sample:


We used Geogebra to place points and model the profile of the containers using polynomials. There were many rich discussions about wise placement of points and which polynomials make more sense to use. One involved the subtle differences between these two profiles and what they meant for the resulting volume through calculus methods:

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 4.19.33 PM

The task was to predict the volume and then use flasks and graduated cylinders to accurately measure the volume. Lowest error wins. I was happy though that by the end, nobody really cared about ‘winning’. They were motivated themselves to theorize why their calculated answer was above or below, and then adjust their model to test their theories and see how their answer changes.

As usual, I have editorial reflections:

  • If I had students calculating the volume by hand by integration every time, they would have been much more reluctant to adjust their answers and figure out why the discrepancies existed. Integration within Geogebra was key to this being successful. Technology greases the rails of mathematical experimentation in a way that nothing else does.
  • There were a few many lessons that needed to happen along the way as the students worked. They figured out that the images had to be scaled to match the dimensions in Geogebra to the actual dimensions of the object. They figured out that measurements were necessary to make this work. The task demanded that the mathematical tools be developed, so I showed them what they needed to do as needed. It would have been a lot more boring and algorithmic if I had done all of the presentation work up front, and then they just followed steps.
  • There were many opportunities for reinforcing the fundamentals of the Calculus concepts through the activity. This is a tangible example of application – the actual volume is either close to the calculated volume or not – there’s a great deal more meaning built up here that solidifies the abstraction of volume of revolution. There were several ‘aha’ moments and I saw them happen. That felt great.

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Filed under calculus, geogebra, teaching stories

Computational Thinking & Spreadsheets

I feel sorry for the way spreadsheets are used most of the time in school. They are usually used as nothing more than a waypoint on the way to a chart or graph, inevitably with one of its data sets labeled ‘Series 1’. The most powerful uses of spreadsheets come from how they provide ways to organize and calculate easily.

I’ve observed a couple things about the problem solving process among students in both math and science.

  • Physics students see the step of writing out all of the information as an arbitrary requirement of physics teachers, not necessarily as part of the solution process. As a result, it is often one of the first steps to disappear.
  • In math, students solving non-routine problems like Three Act problems often have calculations scrawled all over the place. Even they are written in an organized way, in the event that a calculation is made incorrectly, any sets of calculations that are made must be made again. This can be infuriating to students that might be marginally interested in finding an answer in the first place.
  • Showing calculations in a hand written document is easy – doing so in a document that is to be shared electronically is more difficult. There are also different times when you want to see how the calculation was made, and other times that you want to see the results. These are often presented in different parts of a report (body vs. appendix) but in a digital document, this isn’t entirely necessary.

Here’s my model for how a spreadsheet can address some of these issues:
Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 7.47.59 PM

Why I like it:

  • The student puts all of the given information at the top. This information may be important or used for subsequent calculations, or not. It minimally has all of the information used to solve a problem in one place.
  • The coloring scheme makes clear what is given and what is being being calculated.
  • The units column is a constant reminder that numbers usually have units. In my template, this column is left justified so that the units appear immediately to the right of the numerical column.
  • Many students aren’t comfortable exploring a concept algebraically. By making calculations that might be useful easy to make and well organized, this sets students up for a more playful approach to figuring things out.
  • Showing work is easy in a spreadsheet – look at the formulas. Depending on your own expectations, you might ask for more or less detail in the description column.

Some caveats:

    • A hand calculation should be done by someone to confirm the numbers generated by the spreadsheet are what they should be. This could be a set of test data provided by the teacher, or part of the initial exploration of a concept. Confirming that a calculation is being done correctly is an important step of trusting (but verifying, to quote Reagan for some reason) the computer to make the calculations so that attention can be focused on figuring out what the numbers mean.
    • It does take a bit of time to teach how to enter a formula into a spreadsheet. Don’t turn it into a lecture about absolute or relative addressing, or about rows and columns and which is which – this will come with practice. Show how numbers in scientific notation look, and demonstrate how to get a value placed in another cell. Get straight into making calculations happen among your students and in a way that is immediately relevant to what you are trying to do. Then change a given value, and watch the students nod when all of the values in the sheet change immediately.
    • Building off of what I just said, don’t jump to a spreadsheet for a situation just to do it. The structure and order should justify itself. Big numbers, nasty numbers, lots of calculations, or lots of given information to keep track of are the minimum for establishing this from the start as a tool to help do other things, not an end in and of itself.
    • Do not NOT


      hand your students a spreadsheet that calculates everything for them. If a student wants to make a spreadsheet for a particular type of calculation, that’s great. That’s the student recognizing that such a tool would be useful, and making the effort to do this. If you hand them a calculator for one specific application, it perpetuates the idea among students that they have to wait for someone else that knows better than them to give them the tool to use. Students should have the ability to make their own utilities, and this is one way to do it.

Example from class yesterday:

We are exploring the way Newton’s Law of Gravitation is used. I asked students to calculate the force of gravity from different planets in the solar system pulling on a 65 kilogram person on Earth, with Wolfram Alpha as the source of data. Each of them used a scientific or graphing calculator to calculate their numbers, with the numbers they used written by hand (without units) on their papers with minimal consistency. They grumbled about the sizes of the numbers. When noticeable differences arose in magnitude between different students, they checked each other until they were satisfied.

I then showed them how to take the pieces of data they found and put them in the spreadsheet in the way I described above. In red, I highlighted the calculation for the magnitude of the force for an object on Earth, and then asked a student to give me her data. This was the value she calculated! I was quickly able to confirm the values that the other students also had made.

I then had them calculate the weight of an object on Earth’s surface using Newton’s law of gravitation. This sent them again on a search for data on Earth’s vital statistics. They were surprised to see that this value was really close to the accepted value for g = 9.8\;m/s^2. I then asked them in their spreadsheet how they might figure out the acceleration due to gravity based on what they already knew. Most were able to figure out without prompting that dividing by the 65 kilogram mass got them there. I then had them use that idea and Newton’s Law of Gravitation to figure out how to obtain the acceleration due to gravity at a given distance from the mass center of a planet. I then had them use the spreadsheet model on their own to calculate the acceleration due to gravity on a couple of different planets, and it went really well.

The focus from that point on was on figuring out what those numbers meant relative to Earth. Often with these types of problems, students will calculate and be done with it. These left them a bit curious about each other’s answers (gravity on Jupiter compared to the Moon) and opened up the possibilities for subsequent lessons. I’ll write more about how I have grown to view spreadsheets as indispensable computing tools in the classroom in the future. A pure computational tool is the lowest level on the totem pole of applications of computers for learning mathematics or science, but it’s a great entry point for students to see what can be done with it.


Spreadsheet Calculation Template

Centripetal Acceleration of the Moon – a comparison we used two days ago to suggest how a 1/r^2 relationship might exist for gravity and the moon.



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Filed under calculus, computational-thinking, robotics, studentwork, teaching stories

Differentiation Rules – Making it Interactive

I always struggle during the days spent going over differentiation rules. The mathematician in me says the students need to see where the rules come from so that they aren’t just a recipe. On the other hand, I see students glazing over a bit with notation and getting lost in the midst of the overall goal: how do we find shortcuts for finding derivative functions outside of using the limit definition every time?

I have also tried going through the derivations in class and having them just watch and see the progression on their own, without copying things down. Some compulsively copied despite my repeated requests not to do so – I think it was a situation of seeing copying notes down as an alternative to really digging in to what was actually going on. It’s mindless to copy down notes, a great alternative to actually going through the steps of understanding.

Last year I made videos of the derivations and asked students to watch them outside of class in a one-off attempt at flipping. That didn’t work – students said they watched but ‘didn’t get it’, so my attempt to quiz them when they arrived in class was a bust.

This is my compromise this year: for finding the derivative of a constant, a constant times a function, and the power rule, students will be guided through what has essentially my lesson plan for previous lessons. Sums of functions, products, and quotients will be given first as applications of the limit rules, but the details of getting from the start to the finish will be kept as an exercise for later.

See my handout for today here:
03 – CW – Differentiation Rules

Thank you to Patrick Honner and Dan Anderson for their comments pushing me on this.


Filed under calculus

Why SBG is blowing my mind right now.

I am buzzing right now about my decision to move to Standards Based Grading for this year. The first unit of Calculus was spent doing a quick review of linear functions and characteristics of other functions, and then explored the ideas of limits, instantaneous rate of change, and the area under curves – some of the big ideas in Calculus. One of my standards reads “I can find the limit of a function in indeterminate form at a point using graphical or numerical methods.”

A student had been marked proficient on BlueHarvest on four out of the five, but the limit one held her back. After some conversations in class and a couple assessments on the idea, she still hadn’t really shown that she understood the process of figuring out a limit this way. She had shown that she understood that the function was undefined on the quiz, but wasn’t sure how to go about finding the value.

We have since moved on in class to evaluating limits algebraically using limit rules, and something must have clicked. This is what she sent me this morning:

Getting things like this that have a clear explanation of ideas (on top of production value) is amazing – it’s the students choosing a way to demonstrate that they understand something! I love it – I have given students opportunities to show me that they understand things in the past through quiz retakes and one-on-one interviews about concepts, but it never quite took off until this year when their grade is actually assessed through standards, not Quiz 1, Exam 1.

I also asked a student about their proficiency on this standard:

I can determine the perimeter and area of complex figures made up of rectangles/ triangles/ circles/ and sections of circles.

I received this:
…followed by an explanation of how to find the area of the figure. Where did she get this problem? She made it up.

I am in the process right now of grading unit exams that students took earlier in the week, and found that the philosophy of these exams under SBG has changed substantially. I no longer have to worry about putting on a problem that is difficult and penalizing students for not making progress on it – as long as the problem assesses the standards in some way, any other work or insight I get into their understanding in what they try is a bonus. I don’t have to worry about partial credit – I can give students feedback in words and comments, not points.

One last anecdote – a student had pretty much shown me she was proficient on all of the Algebra 2 standards, and we had a pretty extensive conversation through BlueHarvest discussing the details and her demonstrating her algebraic skills. I was waiting until the exam to mark her proficient since I wanted to see how student performance on the exam was different from performance beforehand. I called time on the exam, and she started tearing up.

I told her this exam wasn’t worth the tears – she wanted to do well, and was worried that she hadn’t shown what she was capable of doing. I told her this was just another opportunity to show me that she was proficient – a longer opportunity than others – but another one nonetheless. If she messed up a concept on the test from stress, she could demonstrate it again later. She calmed down and left with a smile on her face.

Oh, and I should add that her test is looking fantastic.

I still have students that are struggling. I still have students that haven’t gone above and beyond to demonstrate proficiency, and that I have to bug in order to figure out what they know. The fact that SBG has allowed some students to really shine and use their talents, relaxed others in the face of assessment anxiety, and has kept other things constant, convinces me that this is a really good thing, well worth the investment of time. I know I’m just preaching to the SBG crowd as I say this, but it feels good to see the payback coming so quickly after the beginning of the year.

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Filed under algebra 2, calculus, reflection, teaching philosophy, teaching stories

A sample of my direct instruction videos.

As I have previously mentioned, I am really excited to be creating Udacity style videos as resources for students in my classes. With my VideoPress upgrade in effect, I have included some of the two minute videos I put together for Calculus class tomorrow introducing limits. We have already spent some time exploring the concept of limits by graphing and evaluating numerically, but these videos are the start of a more formal treatment of evaluating limits algebraically.

I am very interested in feedback, so let me know what you think in the comments.


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Winning the battle over Python programming

Two stories to share after this week’s activities with students about programming. I have posted previously about my interest in making Python a fundamental part of my classes this year, and so I am finding ways to include it when it makes sense to do so.

I have a couple of students that are bridging the gap between Algebra 2 and Precalculus with an independent study that I get to design. The tentative title of the course for their transcript is ‘Fundamentals of Mathematical Thinking’ and the overall goal is to get these students a chance to develop their fundamental skills to be successful in later classes. I see it as an opportunity to really dig in to some cool mathematical ideas and get them to, well, dig into the fundamentals of mathematical thinking. I don’t plan too much emphasis on the algorithms (though we will spend some time working on skills in algebra, polynomial manipulation, functions, and other crucial topics where they are weak). Looking at a situation, exploring the way different variables might be used to model that situation, and then really digging in to abstract the variables into a model.

We are starting with what I think is the most fundamental application of this: sequences and series. Even simpler, the first task I gave the students was to look at the number of bricks in the rows of a triangular tower and use Python to add up the bricks in each row. This started as a couple of exercises getting to know Python’s syntax. They are then taking programs I wrote to model this problem and adjusting them to find other sums, including the sum of even and odd numbers. One student that completed this task was intrigued that the sum of the latter consisted of perfect squares, but we didn’t explore it any further at this point.

I then gave this student a bunch of sequences. His task was simple: model each one in Python and generate the given terms. This is a standard exercise for Algebra & Precalc students by hand, but I figured that if he could do this with Python, clearly he was able to figure out the pattern. I showed him how to write fractions using string concatenation (e.g. 1/3 = 1 + “/” + 3) which enabled him to develop the harmonic series. Today he figured out Fibonacci and a couple other new ones. It was really fascinating to see him mess around think deeply about the patterns associated with each one. I did tap him slightly in the right direction with Fibonacci, but I have otherwise been hands off. I am also having him write about his work to give him opportunities to work on his writing too. When he feels comfortable sharing it (and I have already warned him that this is the plan), I will post links to his work here.

The other new thing was in Calculus. I have shortened my review of Pre-Calculus concepts substantially, and have made the first unit a survey of limits, rate of change, and definite integrals. Most of this has required technology to explore local linearity and difference quotients. On Thursday, I introduced using rectangular sums to find area – they were otherwise stuck on counting boxes, and I could tell they felt it was like baby math. They really didn’t know any other way.

In showing them rectangular sums, we had some pretty good discussions about overestimating and underestimating. The students had conversations about how rough the approximation with only 3 – 5 rectangles gave for area under a parabola. A couple of them figured out how to use more rectangles. I told them I was going to write a program to do this while they were sitting and working. I created this program and talked them through how it works. They thought it was too complicated to be worth the time, but I think they did understand the basic idea. I then changed the value of N and asked them what they thought that meant. They got it right the first time. I then pushed the value to higher and higher values of N and they immediately saw that it was approaching a limit. Game, set, match.

Today I had the AP students together working on another definite integral activity that focused on the trapezoidal rule. I showed them the code again and gave them the line that calculates area. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for them to work their way to adjusting the program to work for the Trapezoidal rule. We ran out of time to discuss comparisons between the two programs, but they stayed late after class and into their lunch getting it working on their own computers and playing a bit. Here is what we came up with.

The big battle I see is two-fold.

  • Help students not be intimidated by the idea of writing a program to do repetitive calculations.
  • Give students opportunities to see it as necessary and productive to use a computer to solve a problem.

Sometimes these battles are the same, other times they are different. By using the built-in version of Python on their Macs, I have already started seeing them run commands and use text editors to create scripts without too much trouble. That’s the first battle. My plan is to give lots of examples supporting the second one in the beginning, and slowly push the burden of writing these programs on to the students as time goes by and they become more comfortable with the idea. So far I am feeling pretty good about it – stay tuned.


Filed under algebra 2, calculus, programming, teaching stories

The TacoCopter? – a gimmick for integration review

I received an email sending me to this site yesterday about the TacoCopter, which of course was spot on given my interest in all things robotic. I also had PID control on the brain thanks to my course on driving a robot car from Udacity. Bits of python code were in my head already, and I had a strong need to put it all together. Given that it was also Sunday (a workday for most teachers) I had to plan for classes tomorrow, specifically Calculus and Physics.

All of this was in the context of the beautiful afternoon I spent on the balcony of the apartment looking out at the warmest, bluest Hangzhou skies of the year so far. It put me in the mood to do something a bit different for tomorrow’s Calculus class. The AP students will be reviewing related rates and implicit differentiation, but the regular students…they get to have a bit more fun.

This is the activity we will be looking at tomorrow in class: CW – TacoCopter Project

The full wiki page that students will be following is located here:

Some python code for simulating the TacoCopter rising to altitude, which can be found here at github.

Then Geogebra for plotting the data, which shows the lovely simulated accelerometer data with noise:

I don’t really know how it will go. At least students will have an excuse to grin as they review.


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Volumes of Revolution & 3D Modeling

I had a conversation with a colleague a few years ago about volumes of revolution in Calculus. We were both a few years removed from our own Calculus courses in high school and college, and we were talking about how we thought about the concept visually.

For those that need a refresher, here is the idea behind a volume of revolution. Imagine you have a solid object that can be lined up with the x-axis so that its cross section looks like the image below. The object would have a pointy end at the origin (0,0) and a circular face located at x = 1. The closest real world object that fits this description is a Hershey’s Kiss.

The object is axially symmetric about the x-axis. If you were to cut the object with a knife so that the cut passes through the pointy end and the center of the flat face, the image at left would always be the cross section.

A volume of revolution is usually defined by an even simpler idea. Take a region of a graph and rotate it in a circle around some axis. The region at left is defined by rotating the area under the graph of y = x 2 around the x-axis.

My colleague’s way of visualizing this idea started with the solid itself. Cut it into a series of discs, each of width dx , and then analyze a single differential disc to come up with an integral expression for the entire volume. This requires being able to visualize the entire solid first, and then see how it can be cut into discs.

I didn’t see it this way. I could visualize the solid usually, but to then mentally cut the solid into discs, and then construct a differential volume seemed to have one too many steps to make it simple.  I focused on the step that made conceptual sense to me: start with a defined region and rotate it around an axis to create a solid. The differential strip of area we had been making underneath the graph since the first introduction of the definite integral was what I always visualized during integration. I could visualize taking that strip and rotating it around to form a disc, and using that concept for the differential volume. Then add up these discs through an integral to find the volume.

When I taught volume of revolution for the first time, I wanted to introduce it in a way that would emphasize how I had come to understand the concept. Granted, this assumes my way will work for the students, but so far it seems to be doing so pretty well.

Three dimensional computer modeling programs (Blender, Pro-E, Autodesk Inventor, etc) all have a function called ‘Revolve’ which is, by definition, how volumes of revolution are created. The idea is that you define a region, pick an axis, and then the software will create a 3D solid and display it. Having a copy of Pro-E from our FIRST Tech Challenge team, I was able to introduce the process with a series of demonstrations live with the software. Some examples:

The students immediately saw what was going on, and didn’t think much of the process. I could quickly make a sketch, revolve it, and then rotate the object around for students to see what it would look like if actually in front of them. We then proceeded to revolve strips under and between graphs to generate discs and washers. Writing the integrals was then a fairly simple process.

I think the difficulty that might come up with this type of problem is the visualizing step. Students must visualize the 3D shape in order to solve problems related to its volume. I think having this sort of tool available has made a big difference in my students seeing what it means to create a volume of revolution, which then leads to an easier time conceptualizing how to then find its volume using Calculus.

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Turning random facts into logistics curves – ODE per day series continued.

I previously wrote about making sure that every class during our unit on differential equations starts with some differential equation they can see or feel in a concrete way.

During the last class, we investigated a draining tank using the video posted by Dan Meyer at his blog.

Today we did something different. I told them that I was doing an experiment with a simple task. They all needed to find the answers to some  questions as quickly as possible:

When they found the answers, I wanted them to quickly throw a hand in the air to let me know. I told them to be honest – they didn’t know what I was doing with the information yet, so there really wasn’t a chance to skew it.

I then showed them the slide with the questions:

I also simultaneously started the following Python program. (UPDATE: Code is posted here.) This let me easily record any time a student raised his/her hand.

I then pasted the data directly into a Geogebra spreadsheet and graphed the data…

…and then fit a logistics curve to the data:

They had seen and heard the concept of learning/performance curves before, but it was really great to be able to develop one on the spot with the class. I was impressed with how good the data turned out. It was then neat to be able to show the differential equation that describes this type of phenomenon and solve it to get this type of function.

As is probably obvious, I only have ten students in this group. It would be really cool to try something like this with a bigger group and see if the data fits as nicely.


Filed under calculus, geogebra, teaching stories