The aim of the lessons is to introduce students to using Fermi’s problems, starting from a nowadays challenge, the rise of sea levels due to climate change and the effect expected in on of the most famous coastal Italian city, Venice.
My name is Matteo Torre and I work as a math and physic teacher in an upper secondary school in Italy. I designed a learning scenario for physics classes for students aged between 15-16 years old (2 Liceo Scientifico).
The rise of sea-level
Students were divided into 8 small groups and they were invited to use their own devices (tablet, smartphone, PC, etc.) to solve the problems posed them during the lesson. The activity is divided in following steps:
- How high would sea-level rise if all the glaciers on Earth melted?
- Will Venice be submerged by a possible rise in sea level?
- Can we use a Fermi Problem to save Venice?
- Try you to invent new Fermi problems on Venice
The final goal is to evaluate the meaning and reliability of the data available on sea-level change in Venice.
The activity focuses on the estimation problems at Fermi, which is an estimation problem designed to teach dimensional analysis or approximation, and such a problem is usually a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Dimensional analysis or approximation
We discussed effects related to earth overheating that could determine different sea-level rise (from a few centimetres to hundreds of meters), and how it is possible to interpret these data from a Physicist point of view. The beauty of Fermi problems, that some students translate into a meta-cognitive obstacle, is that there is no single right solution, but many possible proposals, all equally credible.
I decided to introduce the Fermi Problems in my learning scenario because in my professional experience they are an excellent example of a skills test for mathematics and physics, suitable for all types of students and school. These problems are named after the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901 – 1954), Nobel laureate in physics in 1938, who was known for his ability to make good approximate calculations with little or no actual data.
During the physic classroom activity, students have great benefits to use Europeana resources, in particular starting from a frontal view of a palace in Venezia to estimate the difference in height between high tide and low tide.
What benefits for the students?
The students used the detail on the trace left by the algae on the building and calculated both the level of the tide and the height of the balcony in order to understand which level is not sustainable from Venice. This didactic situation was very interesting because it created a problem of esteem inside a problem at Fermi and the students had the opportunity to estimate a value instead of just searching it on the Internet.
Would you like to know more about this learning scenario? You can download it below:
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CC BY-SA 4.0: the featured image used to illustrate this article has been found on Europeana and has been provided by Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC).