Kristen Portalea

Student Capstone Explains Use of Math in Car Crash Reconstruction

Kristen Portalea, a recent Master of Science graduate from the mathematics education program, completed a capstone project called “The Mathematics of Driving” in which she created a series of lesson plans for Algebra I students to learn skills in the context of car crash reconstruction.

“It included lesson plans that math teachers could use in the classroom that would be relevant to students and connect to the curriculum,” Portalea said.

She chose this project after talking with a police officer friend about classes he had taken in collision reconstruction and the math that was involved, especially the Pythagorean theorem, which she was teaching at the time.

Her five lessons were motivated by her desire to help students realize the meaning behind mathematics. Portalea wrote in her paper, “Students’ qualms about practical uses of their mathematical knowledge can be eased by highlighting the many careers that use mathematics to solve real-world problems.”

Lesson one requires students to find the rate of change between two points on a graph, then apply that to the Federal Highway Administration manual to decide which signs need to be placed on a roadway in order to properly warn drivers.

In lesson two, students build a version of a drag sled that is used by crash reconstructionists to determine the friction on the road surface. This, along with tire marks on the road, helps determine the speed and stopping distance of the driver.

Lesson three, she said, “helps students recognize the importance of solving literal equations—equations with many variables—as well as using algebraic properties to solve equations.”

Lesson four has students develop a formula to calculate the maximum speed a vehicle can go around a curve without losing control. Finally, lesson five combines their skills to work through an accident report as a police officer.

Her research will be published in the spring 2017 issue of “Banneker Banner,” the official journal of the Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The Montgomery County Police Department also plans to use the research in its trainings.

“My friend and the police department helped me a lot throughout this project, so I am grateful that my lessons may be useful to the police department,” said Portalea. “Our society drives so frequently that everybody can relate to this application of math.”

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