Adventure at the Speed of Sound

A science teacher and a math teacher collaborate to have their students collect and graph data on the speed of sound. What begins as a novel idea becomes a logistical nightmare as one teacher attempts to include several learning disabled students, and, later, discovers that the group work has not been shared equally.

Cherisa (science teacher) asks Charlie (mathematics instructor) to collaborate on a project.

Lunch time, yes! I had waited all morning for a chance to talk with Charlie Callahan, the mathematics teacher, about an idea that started rolling around in my head over the weekend. I began as soon as he sat down.

“Charlie, you teach your ninth graders to use graphing calculators, right?” He nodded affirmatively, so I continued. “You know, students really comprehend the concepts in physical science when they are responsible for constructing the knowledge themselves.”

I paused for a response, but all Charlie could do was hum an agreeing, “Ah huh.”

The poor guy, I hadn’t even let him swallow the first bite of his sandwich so he could talk. “I want to have my classes experimentally determine the speed of sound in air. There will be a lot of data and it might get overwhelming for them to analyze and graph it on their own. What is the chance we could work together on this project? Would it be possible for you to use the data students generate in my class when you teach them how to do analysis and graphing on the calculator?”

To my relief, Charlie was interested in the idea. “Sounds good. Finding relevant material in other fields is really time consuming, so I generally use whatever data is in the book. Data that the students generate might work well. When do you want to do this?”

Yum…Sandwich anyone?

I crossed my fingers as I said, “How about starting Friday?” Charlie looked as though he might choke on his ham and cheese sandwich.

“Today is Monday,” laughed Charlie. “You’re cutting it a little close there, aren’t you Cherisa?”

“Yeah, I know, I know. The idea just came to me Saturday while I was messing with my graphing calculator. If you could teach the students to use the calculators, they could design the experiment and collect the data for both our classes. We would both benefit from it.”

Charlie finished his sandwich. I could tell he was giving the proposal some serious thought. “The Algebra I classes will be okay,” said Charlie. “But my general math class has not reached the point where they need graphing calculators. I guess I can stick it into my lesson plans, especially since I don’t have any!” He grinned like he had just revealed some big secret. It was a well-known fact that Charlie taught at whim, especially in his lower-level classes. He knew his stuff, but he was not very organized. His lack of lesson plans was not surprising to me.

Same time tomorrow

Charlie continued, “The only possible problem with your plans is that I won’t be working with students in Maria Alvarez’s class.” Maria Alvarez was our Learning Disabled (LD) resource teacher. Because our school was small, all of the ninth graders were enrolled either in Charlie’s general math and algebra classes or in Maria’s basic math class. I realized I needed to speak with Maria as soon as possible to see if I could pull her into our project.

Charlie had to leave for restroom duty, so we agreed to pick up the conversation the next day at lunch. I stayed at the table in a cloud of thoughts. If we started our joint venture on Friday, we would have only one week to complete it before standardized testing was scheduled to occur. Judging from the memo I received from the guidance department, classes might not meet for several days in a row while testing took place. This meant it would be impossible for Charlie, and hopefully Maria, and I to work on a joint project that week. I needed to move quickly, because we had just a few days to iron out the details of our project. I also knew that the three of us needed to do some careful planning to maximize our opportunities for success.

My thoughts were interrupted suddenly by a commotion in the hallway. I recognized Joey’s voice pleading, “No, no it was like these other guys, you know. Like me and Rust, you know, were just like taking it in.” As I glanced toward the doorway, I saw Joey and Rust being escorted to the office by the principal. Evidently they had gotten into some sort of trouble and were trying to talk their way out of it. The principal wasn’t buying it.

Finally Rust shouted “Shut up Joey, just shut up man! He ain’t listening. He don’t care. Don’t none of them care.”

I shook my head, thinking I was “blessed” to have both of these students in my second-period class.

Rust’s real name was Milton, but the kids called him Rust because of his dark reddish hair. He couldn’t care less about school or the people in it; he was not here to learn. When he wasn’t entertaining his classmates, he fell asleep, sometimes for the entire class period. According to the other students, Rust did not get much rest at home, but no one ever explained what they meant by this statement.

Joey was one of Maria’s kids. I figured he and Rust would probably face in-school suspension tomorrow and miss my class. That meant second period might be peaceful for a change. What a treat!

Cherisa talks with Maria (LD resource teacher) about the project.

After school, I spoke with Maria about my idea, but she was not as receptive as Charlie. “Cherisa, my students are working on basic math skills. How could I possibly expect them to use graphing calculators?”

I interrupted, “Oh, graphing calculators really aren’t very hard to use.” Negative thoughts about this endeavor were not allowed!

But Maria continued, “Besides, my students’ lessons were planned and approved the first of September. It would take me at least a month to make any changes in Joey’s and Brian’s IEPs, because each change has to go through an approval process. I’m preparing students for the standardized tests right now. I couldn’t possibly do anything different until testing is over.”

Drat. A fly in the ointment. Maria was right, but I didn’t want to admit it. I had forgotten that plans for students receiving special education services could not be changed, come hell or high water, without parental consent and tons of paperwork. This meant that two students, Joey and Brian, would have to pick up the math skills the best they could. Joey wasn’t likely to complete the assignment anyway. And poor Brian would not understand a concept like the speed of sound, whether he used a graphing calculator or not. I had never talked with Maria about Brian’s problems, but I heard from other teachers that he often became confused and had difficulty putting his ideas down on paper. Nonetheless, I was definitely not going to bag the idea because of two students.

Cherisa’s class collects data on the speed of sound.

My students collected data on Tuesday. It was a very hard day! I divided my science classes into teams of 4 or 5 students, and each group decided on different ways to determine the speed of sound. Each group had to collect time and temperature data during my class period so they could use it in Charlie’s class later that day. Although Charlie and I had not talked extensively about the project, we had touched base each day during lunch. Finally we were set to begin.

See Cherisa’s lesson plans below:

School band bass drummers

My second-period class was a challenge until Michael Soreno, the band instructor, came to the rescue. One group of students wanted to use the bass drum in their design. They were going to record the time it took the sound to reach them after they saw the drummer strike the head of the drum. They had gotten permission from Mr. Soreno to collect data during his second-period band practice out on the football field. That meant I would be helping 3 rather than 4 groups with data collection.

The first group was ready with an aluminum bat and a hard ball. The whole class trouped out to the grassy area by the trees at the side of the building. “Okay ladies, watch it scream!” Sam announced as he hit the ball. The sound seemed to follow along the tree line to the rest of his team at the far end of the field. Brooke was the timekeeper. She stood 100 meters away with the stopwatch at the ready. As soon as she saw Sam hit the ball, she started the watch. She stopped the watch when she heard the distinct “ka-chink” sound of the aluminum bat against the ball. Another student recorded the time while the last member of the group retrieved the ball. Brooke’s team finished 10 trials and collected fairly consistent data in no time. The rest of the class enjoyed watching them work so efficiently. Even Rust managed to stay awake!

“You guys were really well prepared. Nice job!” I proclaimed. My expectations for success in this project were growing by leaps and bounds.

The second group was not as well prepared. Abilash brought a container of compressed air that created a loud blast of sound like the emergency horns on boats. One member of the group stood between the “blaster” and the data collectors and signaled both simultaneously. As the blaster made a sound, Dana, the timekeeper, got a measurement. Brian’s job was to record the data. As Dana shouted out data, Brain seemed to have difficulty writing the numbers accurately. “Brian, number 2 is 0.6 seconds. Did you get that? No, the temperature is 60. Write down 0.6 in the second column and put the temperature down here!” she shouted impatiently. It was obvious Brian was confused, and it took his group 15 minutes to get the 6 trials they needed for Charlie’s graphing lesson. Because the rest of the groups got restless and Joey started to clown around, I had to call time on Brian’s group. (

See Brian’s data sheet below:

The last group included Joey and Rust. They always chose to work together but rarely completed any task. Getting others to work with them had always been a problem, and this time was no exception. Two fairly strong students had attended a special program for the gifted the day we chose groups, so they were unaware of their team assignment. When they found out they were to work with Joey and Rust, they complained, “That’s not fair. We will end up doing all the work and they’ll get the grade for it. Why can’t we work alone?”

My response was classic textbook. “Cooperative learning is not always easy. It’s important to know how to work with different situations in life.” They didn’t think that was a suitable answer, but I didn’t have any other to offer. I didn’t envy them one bit.

Pile driver and steel

Interestingly, it was Joey who came up with the idea for the group’s experiment. He had been watching some nearby construction and noticed that he could see the pile driver hit a spike before he heard the impact. His suggestion was to drive a metal rod into the ground with a sledge hammer while his group took data within eyesight—about 250 meters away. I was impressed. “Great idea, Joey!” I said. “You really came through for your group!” Joey seemed embarrassed by my public praise. He picked up the sledgehammer and began tapping the rod to set it into the ground. The rest of the team ran to their positions, and they went right to work. Within 5 minutes they had collected their data.

The class headed back to my room. The band group returned to the classroom a few minutes behind us. As he walked through the door, Raul announced, “The band teacher said we needed to take our measurements and return to our geek domain.”

“Yeah,” Sarah chimed in, “Mr. Soreno said talking about the physics of sound removes the creative mystique from music.”

“Somebody needs to give the man a clue. His band can’t keep time much less play on the same beat at the football games. And the echo off the empty bleachers at the end of the field really makes them sound BAAAADDD,” bleated Terrell, the third member of the team.

Apparently the opportunity to gather data during band practice had not been a positive experience. Today’s lunch-time planning session with Charlie definitely needed to include Michael Soreno!

Rust and Joey decided it was a good time to provide entertainment for the class in the last few seconds before the bell. “Hey teacher!” shouted Joey. “Did you know you can suck a string through your nose and pull it outta the roof of your mouth? Watch!”

Joey was the prime entertainer with Rust acting as the cheering squad. “Go for it, Joey! Yeah, do that one! Hey, hey, look! Joey’s gonna do that thing again!” Every eye in the room was on the two boys. Joey had made a real effort to contribute to his group that day, but now he was back to his old ways.

Although he was 17, Joey was enrolled in ninth-grade physical science. The last time he got in trouble during my class, I talked with his grandmother. She explained that Joey’s parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and neither of them wanted custody of him. Consequently, Joey’s grandmother has been trying to raise him. “I am just holding on until he is old enough to take the GED and enlist in the army,” she said. “Joey’s always been trouble. I tried to get his father to take him a few years ago, but he sent Joey back. Do what you have to, but don’t call me anymore. I just can’t do anything with him.”

Just then, the bell rang. Most of these students were headed to math class. It was Charlie’s turn to have them for awhile.

Cherisa questions the band instructor about his comments and asks Charlie about students’ success with graphing calculators.

Lunch time came. I sat at the table in a daze, exhausted from the chaos during second period and confused by Michael Soreno’s attitude toward genuine inquiry. As Michael approached my table, I said jokingly, “Hey, Michael, what’s this about our project being a geek thing?”


“Oh, no harm intended, but, well, it’s just that physics types want to quantify everything and state it, you know, in quantitative terms. That’s okay, but it destroys the romance of the music. Musicians create interwoven tones that flow through the air with immeasurable speeds to possess the heart and soul of the listener. Physics types generate data tables of frequencies and temperatures that can be charted and graphed to clutter the mind and notebook of the student. It’s a relative thing. I’m sure you understand.”

I was stunned. What I understood was that this man just slammed my field of expertise into the dirt and thought it was okay. “Hey, physics types like romance too, you know,” I commented between clenched teeth. It was a good thing Michael could not read my mind. I was not feeling very friendly at the moment.

The next time I told the students they could gather data from another class I would be sure to talk to the teacher first! As I sat glumly, I wondered where Charlie was. We never had more than a few minutes to talk, but I desperately needed some good news. Despite my unpleasant exchange with Michael, I was still hopeful our project would succeed.

When Charlie finally entered the teacher’s lounge, I blurted, “You’re late! How did things go?”

“Great, great,” he responded. “The students got their data entered and graphed. There were no problems.”

“What a relief,” I said. “I was starting to think this day was going to go belly up on me before it was halfway over.”


Charlie looked quizzical. “Really? The students got right to work creating the lists and setting the parameters so they could see what their graphs looked like. Most of them turned out fairly well, considering time data were taken using hand-held stopwatches.”

“Yeah, that’s always a problem,” I replied. “If we could afford the new hardware attachments for the graphing calculators we could gather more precise data right out in the field.” I realized I was starting to sound exactly as Michael had described me, but I didn’t care. “Tomorrow I want them to calculate the actual speed of sound by including temperature readings they collected during their time trials. The students can print out the data lists and graphs using the computer interface software that came with the calculators and compare the actual results to the calculated results on side-by-side graphs.”

“Uh-huh, that will be fine,” mumbled Charlie as he glanced at the clock on the wall. “No, wait, did you say you want them to print out their data lists and graphs?” said Charlie. “That might be hard to do. The kids finished early and we had time to kill, so we made up some new data and graphed it. Most of the students have cleared their lists, and the calculators don’t store the graphs.” 

See Charlie’s lesson plans below:

I think I may have stopped breathing for one brief moment. The point of this entire exercise of working together was to have the calculator do the work that might otherwise be done manually. I couldn’t believe Charlie had let students delete their data! I stuffed a large bite of apple into my mouth to give me a few seconds to regain composure and perhaps prevent me from saying something stupid, like, “Did you lose your mind?”

After a minute I felt calm enough to ask, “What is the possibility the students kept a copy of the raw data? Maybe they can re-enter it and we’ll only be 10 or 15 minutes behind.”

“Oh, yeah,” agreed Charlie. “Maybe they saved the original data sheets. Guess you’ll find out tomorrow.”

I was speechless. I wouldn’t know until I met with my students whether 15 points worth of their assignment was lost! Those without data, of course, would not be able to compare their experimental values with actual values. And they wouldn’t be able to draw conclusions or turn in graphs either. They would have their experimental procedures–20 percent of the assignment–and no data on which to build. I thought I was going to scream!

“Charlie, this really causes a major problem,” I said. “Please, don’t let this afternoon’s class nuke their data. They need it to finish the assignment.”

Graphing Calculator

“Okay, I’ll try,” replied Charlie. “We only have one class set of graphing calculators, and I need to use them in my Algebra I class, too. The calculator only has six lists available, so there’s no guarantee the data will not be altered or deleted. Maybe you ought to emphasize that students should keep their original data sheets. By the way, what’s the chance your second-period class can just use the data collected by your afternoon class?”

I tried not to show my agitation as I spoke. “No, that won’t work. Sources of data were different for each group; temperatures during the morning will be different from those this afternoon. Using another group’s data reduces the activity to a paper-and-pencil lab. The groups that didn’t throw their data away will be okay; I don’t know what I will do about the others.”

Charlie didn’t have a response. He gulped down the rest of his lunch and slumped off to patrol the restrooms. I was worn out. This interdisciplinary approach just hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would. Still, there was hope that the students would come through with their data and save the day.

Cherisa meets with her students to continue the graphing project.

“Okay folks, I need you to settle down so we can get started.” The students lowered their voices but continued to talk among themselves while I took roll. I noticed that everyone was present except Brian.

As the late bell sounded, I began my lesson with the question I had dreaded asking since my meeting with Charlie. “Yesterday in Mr. Callahan’s class you worked with your data and generated a histogram, right?” A few students nodded affirmatively. “How many of you still have a copy of your data?” I asked.

I scanned the room and saw only 3 or 4 hands raised in the air. That was not encouraging. “Today we’ll use the computer interface to transfer your data and graph from the calculator to your disk. Be sure to save your program and get a printout. While your team is waiting for a turn on the computer, you can calculate the actual speed of sound at the temperature you recorded. The equation is on page 317. If you finish all of this, then start on the analysis questions listed on the board. You will need to include the printout, the calculated speed of sound, and responses to the questions in your final lab report. Does everyone understand? If so, please meet with your team members, get a graphing calculator, and re-enter your data.”


The students were quick to get started, and I moved around the room to check their progress. The band team was closest to me. Sarah and Raul were rummaging through Terrell’s book bag. “I saw you put it in your bag when we left Mr. Callahan’s class, Terrell. You stuffed it in there with the note Keesha passed you,” said Sarah. She seemed positive the sheet was buried somewhere in Terrell’s bag.

Terrell was not so sure. “No, I put Keesha’s note in my math book. Mrs. Johnson, can I go to my locker and see if our paper is there?” I wrote him a hall pass and moved on to the next group.

Two members of Sam’s group had copies of the data. They were ready to work on the computer. I was pleased to see that at least one group might actually finish the activity.

Joey’s group was my next stop. The two students enrolled in the gifted and talented program had the data as well as a hand-drawn graph. I began to relax. Maybe things were going to work out after all.

As I approached the last team, the anger in their voices told all. “You left the data with Brian? Why did you do that? He couldn’t keep the numbers straight. How’s he gonna keep track of a piece of paper? What a moron!”

I was shocked by the group’s harsh words, and I was unsure what to say. Trying to calm the group, I meekly offered, “Now let’s not sell Brian short. He might have your data sheet.”

At that moment the door opened and Brian entered the classroom as though on cue. “Sorry I’m late. I was with Mrs. Alvarez. My Dad and I came to the school last night and did the experiment over. We got 10 trials and Mrs. Alvarez helped me put them into a table this morning.”

Abilash and Dana were ecstatic. “Dude!” “Way to go, Brian!” they exclaimed. Brian was obviously proud of himself.

I was not as enthusiastic. It was great that Brian worked with his father and Mrs. Alvarez. It really showed that he cared and wanted to do well. But the team didn’t do the work. How could I give them a grade for work they didn’t do?

“Brian,” I said in my most diplomatic voice, “I’m pleased that you were able to get the data last night. It really shows hard work and determination on your part.” Abilash and Dana stop patting Brian on the back. They had heard this tone of voice before. “You know, a very important part of cooperative learning is doing the entire process as a team. Do you think the rest of the group can join you after school to work together and redo this?”


“You mean we can’t use his data?” Dana whined.

“No, it is good data, but it is Brian’s. I cannot give the whole team a grade for one person’s work.”

Brian was speechless. Abilash was not. “That’s not fair. He lost the sheet, he should be the one to get new data. Besides, you can’t make me stay after school to redo some experiment we already did. I have track practice every afternoon.”

Sarah spoke up from across the room. “Yeah, Mrs. Johnson. That’s not fair. We didn’t know you wanted us to save the sheet after we used it for math class.”

Terrell added, “The sheet is not in my locker or my book bag, so we don’t have data either. I ride the bus home and can’t stay after school any day. My mom doesn’t have a car.”

How was I going to manage this? I had assumed Charlie would realize students needed to keep their data. Now I had a grading nightmare on my hands. Half the class had the data necessary to complete the assignment, so I couldn’t drop the project. Sam’s group had even started the analysis questions. It wasn’t fair to give Brian’s group members a grade for his work when the other students had to work as a team. And I doubted seriously if Mr. Soreno would allow Sarah’s team to repeat the experiment during the next band practice. I would rather pull my teeth out than ask, anyway. And the standardized testing would begin in two days.

I needed time to think. Would the bell never ring?