Innovative math teacher brings war history to life through math

Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Technology
Mr. Tang's math students pose by the Museum's Lancaster X aircraft.

Imagine a math class that involves remote-controlled planes, a museum of world-class aircraft, and a poignant connection to an important military mission from the Second World War.

That’s exactly what Grade 11 math students at Lisgar Collegiate Institute get to experience, thanks to a unique museum-school collaboration between Lisgar and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Math teacher Robert Tang has created the Dambuster Math Summative, an innovative full-day program connecting math to history. Museum education officer Kimberly Reynolds acts as liaison, arranging access to the museum resources in support of the project.

This year, Mr. Tang and his class held their Dambuster Math Summative at the museum on May 16. The Ingenium Channel asked Mr. Tang and a few students to write about their project and their experiences that day.

What is the Dambuster Math Summative?

The Grade 11 Dambuster Math Summative is a project based on Operation Chastise, which was conducted by the Royal Air Force Bomber Command on May 16-17, 1943. It was one of the most famous air operatives of the Second World War. It allows Mr. Tang's math students to apply the math they learned during the semester in a cooperative manner to determine how to destroy the Möhne Dam.

In the morning, the students were divided into groups and tasked with solving different aspects of the mission. This included decoding German Enigma messages, researching the people involved in the mission using primary sources, learning how to fly at 60 feet in the dark, and skipping a bomb along the water. All of this was done under the shadow of the museum’s Avro 683 Lancaster X.

Once the crews were more or less ready, the real mission took place. Students not only faced the pressure to succeed, but they also faced enemy air defense as they tried to destroy the Möhne Dam.

The project focussed on the math required to destroy the Möhne Dam, the history of Operation Chastise and also connected the students to Lisgar's past via a former graduate, Pilot Officer Lewis Burpee who died during the operation. A plaque in the school’s Memorial Hall celebrates his contribution, service, and sacrifice.

~ Mr. Tang, math teacher

A black and white aerial view of the Möhne Dam.

An aerial view of the Möhne Dam.

Describe your role on the team. What did you do and why were you doing it?

My role on the team was to act as the pilot, which involved several different events throughout the day. To start, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to fly a flight simulator, which was an incredibly fun experience. Despite being a short part of the entire trip, this was definitely the most memorable for me. Next, we spent about an hour researching the original mission and details about the plane used.

After assisting some of the other groups to do the calculations used to plan the simulation in miniature scale, we started the simulation. This involved flying a remote-controlled bomber airplane, which was attached to two parallel fishing wires above the ground, allowing it to fly in a straight line in a controlled environment. This miniature plane had the ability to drop a small ball which represented the skipping bomb used in the original mission during the Second World War.

Using the calculations from the other groups, we all worked together to accurately know when to fly and release the ball from the plane to knock over the foam blocks representing the dam. As the pilot, I flew the airplane and released the ball (bomb) when called to do so by our team’s scientist. This was a fun experience and, due to our accurate calculations, we were able to hit the dam in its centre and knock over a significant part of it.

~ Cameron MacGillivray, student

A model aircraft flies over a mock dam.

The students fly their model aircraft over a mock dam.

Do you think being in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum added anything to the experience? What difference did it make?

Being in the museum definitely made the experience more exciting and inspiring. Having the opportunity to learn about the airplanes that were involved in the mission gave it the real life perspective the project deserved. Doing the project in school, as much fun as our school is, just wouldn't have felt as interactive. The conditions under which the soldiers involved in the mission had to work with in order to get the drop right, put things into perspective for us and made me appreciate their triumph even more.

At the museum we were fortunate enough to see the type of aircraft that was used in the actual attack and to see as well what kind of issues and advantages each plane had. We were able to learn who did what in each part of the airplane; this was fascinating and something we definitely would have missed if we were sitting at our desks, staring at a screen. Nowadays, we spend so much time doing traditional learning in our math classes that we forget how important math is and how it is utilized in everyday actions.

The museum allowed us to think outside of the box and discover for ourselves the heart pumping, goosebump-inducing experience that was attempting to drop a bouncing bomb that would collide with a dam and help to end a war. In my three years at Lisgar, this was the most exciting, eventful and anticipated summative I have ever had the pleasure of participating in. Getting to do my math summative while surrounded by memorabilia of the battle that we were studying was my favourite math experience in high school so far, and I look forward to returning to the museum.

~ Madeline McDermott, student

The Lancaster X aircraft on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

The Lancaster X aircraft on display at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Do you have a different perspective on math coming out of this experience?  

After this activity I have a pretty new look on math. I usually put math and physics together and when I do that, it’s always in the theoretical. But when we actually test out our math and see that it really does work in the real world, it's a whole new thing. It is one thing to say "okay, this object has a resonating frequency of..." But to actually calculate things and put them to the test is another. It has a very satisfying quality to it, very similar to when you make a machine that works just perfectly. So all in all, I believe that this experience has changed the way I view math and science. 

~ Xavier Haziza, student

What was it like to meet Mr. Burpee Jr.?             

It was a very interesting experience to meet Mr. Burpee Jr. and have him observe our activity. I wonder what he was thinking when he witnessed us recreate Operation Chastise. Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to speak with him after our activity, so I do not know what his exact thoughts were, but I have heard that he was intrigued by the depth and scope of it. Having the son of Pilot Officer Burpee., who unfortunately lost his life on the exact mission that we were recreating, reminded us of the importance and consequences that came with such operations.

This mission resulted in more than just the destruction of a dam, it came with the loss of brave men. Pilot Officer Burpee was an important part of the mission, so having his son there emphasized the importance of his sacrifice. Prior to this activity, I had seen him only once before at our Remembrance Day assembly last fall. At that assembly, Pilot Officer Burpee was honoured with a plaque in Lisgar’s Memorial Hall. I hope that we were able to accurately represent the importance of his fateful mission.

~ Neala Sinclair, student

On the whole, what did you take away from this experience?

For me, this day was more than just a field trip, or a day of math, or a chance to learn about an interesting part of Canada’s history. To me this was a chance to appreciate all the work and sacrifice that goes into war.

As a pilot, I had the opportunity to fly the redbird flight simulator, which was incredibly fun, but then I was asked to fly at 60 feet above the water, which I had read was the altitude that these very young pilots had to fly at. Not only was this very difficult to do, but I was working with a virtual plane without any of the problems that could arise in the actual raid. I had state-of-the-art equipment and a trained pilot helping me through the whole process, and I still barely managed to not crash.

The whole time, I was thinking of the young men, who were but a few years older than me, sitting in the cockpit of a bomber, without any information of their mission, having simply been told to fly at 60 feet above the water. During the tests, many planes had been hit by the water that splashed up from the bombs, so there was a lot of risk involved, and many men didn’t make it back. I can’t fathom what they would have been feeling on the day of the raid, heading towards German territory, not knowing if they would ever see their country again. The mathematics are definitely interesting, but I think the most fascinating and awe inspiring part was the soldiers who risked their lives for this mission and for this country.

~ Cayden Hall-Varty, student


Cameron MacGillivray

I am a Grade 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute. I enjoy most scientific and mathematical subjects in school, as well as those that relate more to politics and debate. During the summer I enjoy sailing small racing dinghies, which I can relate to interests in physics at school.

Madeline McDermott

I was born and raised in Ottawa and this is my third year attending Lisgar Collegiate Institute. I play high performance volleyball outside of school and enjoy coaching, as well as teaching science as a camp counsellor. After high school, I hope to go into Civil Engineering. I have always been someone who admired math and that has only increased since being in Mr. Tang's math class.

Xavier Haziza

I am in the Grade 11 at Lisgar Collegiate Institute. After high school, I am planning to go to the University of Ottawa or McGill University for Mechanical Engineering. 

Neala Sinclair

I am a Grade 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute who participates in a variety of extracurricular activities, such as Nordic skiing, varsity girls’ soccer, and yearbook. Currently, my future plans are to study architecture or a related field. 

Cayden Hall-Varty

I'm a Grade 11 student at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, where I have attended for three years. I've lived in Ottawa my whole life, although I visit Quebec often. I'm very interested in math and economics, and in the future I want to open my own business. I plan to go to university in Nova Scotia.

Profile picture for user Kim Reynolds
Kim Reynolds

Kim Reynolds is the Canada Aviation and Space Museum's Education Officer. Her goal is to infect as many people as possible with a love of learning!