When Evanston Township High School geometry teacher Zachary Hermann assigns his students the weeklong project of creating giant inflatable shapes, he does not necessarily hope for a straight line beginning at Point A and ending with Point B. The journey from conception to construction should have just enough bumps so that innovation, collaboration, problem-solving and leader-ship can emerge from the group, he told a RoundTablereporter visiting the third-period class’s exhibition earlier this month.

“I think it’s important to engage students in extended and sustained complex-problem solving,” he said.

In groups of three or more, the students decide on what they will make from the sheets of brightly colored vinyl. They think, measure and cut, and on exhibition day, they tape the sides together and inflate the figure with one or more window fans.

“They study volume and surface area, working with complex shapes. … It’s an opportunity to use math and create this pretty spectacular project,” said Mr. Hermann.

On exhibit day, May 25, it appeared that most of the 28 students began problem-solving almost as soon as the fans began to whirr.

 “It’s sort of an octopus,” team members Delek Hunter, Emma Dillon and Julia Petterson said of their bright red multi-armed eight-foot inflatable. It took a while to get the design, they said, and agreed that “putting it together was the hardest part.”

Natalie Cleland, Sarah Danesin, Ben Bouxsein and Simon Ciaccio spent hours outside of class working on their spaceship.  “The design just popped into Natalie’s head,” said Sarah. “We had cool shapes that are easy to do,” said Natalie. Added Sarah, “Who doesn’t like hexagons?”

Mr. Hermann said at least one faculty member spent a half hour with each group, quizzing them about how they created the design, what was “particularly challenging or surprisingly easy about using geometry to design and construct something in large scale,” and asking them to make connections among “art and design, mathematics, problem-solving and engineering.” 

Even students whose projects did not wholly match their ambitions took their work seriously. Many seemed to know what worked and what did not. Olivia Matthew, Zoe Minzenberg and Morgan Munro said they had “made a rectangle within a rectangle – if it worked out,” as they continued to tape and re-position their project.

Mei Kelly, Jack Marchesi, Angel Giordano and Hayley Kretchmer’s airy staircase was operational – but only briefly. Teamwork and problem-solving would suffice where fans and sticky tape would not.

Mr. Hermann said, “Some groups were able to be more adaptive and successful than others,” but he appeared to be as excited as the students at the results.
This is the fifth year his classes have created inflatables, and, he says, “Every year I try to take it to the next level. … I push the use of technology collaboration and innovation to the parameters of what school could be at the next level.”

At the end of the period, Mr. Hermann called the students together for a recap, cleanup and a preview of the following week’s work. Students packed up their
six-to-ten-foot projects, fitting them neatly into clear plastic laundry-size bags and went to their next class. In Mr. Hermann’s geometry class, the projects, not
the egos, were inflated.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...