How are We Connected? Meaningful Adjacencies.

It’s Siemens STEM Academy Week at Discovery HQ in Silver Spring, MD, and I am enthused, excited, engaged, tired, and looking forward to more.  This is my third year participating in this program, and the experiences just get better and better.  Fifty educators from around the country are here to experience sessions related to STEM education, and make new connections.  Check out #stemin13 on Twitter to follow the action through Friday, and look back on previous sessions.  Also, experience last year’s STEM Academy through my blog posts from last year:

Digital Storytelling with Hall Davidson

Let’s Play Plinko, my STEM 2012 Presentation

Flipping the Classroom with Lodge McCammon

imageThis year, the Fellows heard from Discovery Channel personality Danny Forster, host of “Build it Bigger”, who shared his experiences traveling the world examining interesting engineering and architetural feats, and the thrilling (and sometimes gasp-inducing) views of those experiences.

Part of Danny’s talk focused on the 9/11 Memorial in New York City; in particular, the fascinating method the memorial designers chose for arranging the names of those memorialized around the base.

What methods could designers have used to arrange the names?  An alphabetic approach seems reasonable, accessible, and un-complicated.  But how does this method honor friendships?  Co-workers?  Fiancees?

The designers decided on an approach which has since been named “meaningful adjacencies”.  Victims’ families were contacted and asked to name up to 5 victims with whom their loved one shared a relationship.  This data was then used to create connections, with the goal that names listed on the memorial base would be connected to – adjaent to – as many meaningful relationships as possible.  With almost 3,000 names to consider, this became a large optimization problem, and a fascinating one to discuss with your classes.


Here are some reading and resources to get you started:

Jer Thorp explains his methodology for creating the algorithm used to analyze the relationship data.  Great visuals for networking and a video example of the algorith in action.

PBS interview with Jer Thorp and Jake Barton

Scientific American summary of the Meaningful Adjacency method

9/11 Memorial Names Guide

“Rise of Freedom Flashback” – 9 minute video from

“Names Come to Life” from The Rising by Discovery Channel

How can you introduce this complex problem to your classes?  Have students think about different ways we could arrange the class.  Certainly, an alphabetical method is reasonable, but how else could we arrange students?  By height?  By desire to sit in certain seats?  Are there students who we would want, or need, to arrange near each other?  Are there others we should keep separated?

Try this with your class:

Have each students write their name on an index card.  Then, under their name, have each student list their 5 favorite movies (or TV shows, or books…whatever).  Collect the cards, and spread them across a floor, or using magnets, to a magnetic board.  How can we arrange students to ensure that student with similar interests appear close to each other.  Consider this hypothetical class example, where favorite movies of students are considered.

STEP 1 – We found a number of students who liked the Smurfs, and others liked Monsters University.  They have been placed near each other:


STEP 2 – Digging deeper, we found that some of the Monsters U lovers also liked the Smurfs, and vice-versa.  These students have been placed strategically to ensure connections.


STEP 3 – Some students also enjoy Despicable Me, and are placed next to each other.


STEP 4 – One of these students also enjoys Monsters University, so connections are made.


STEP 5 – But a problem arises when we look at Donna, who seems distant from Bob, Aiden and Joe.


Here’s where would we revise our model, and experiment with new ideas.  Can we ever have a model which has perfect adjacencies?  How can we maximize these adjacencies.  Have teams of students consider, develop, and defend their models and vote on the best.  Extend this into an introduction to network models and matrix representations, or just use it as a class-building activity on your first day.


By Bob Lochel

HS Math Teacher. Hatboro-Horsham School District, Horsham, PA.

7 replies on “How are We Connected? Meaningful Adjacencies.”

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