## Saturday, August 29, 2009

### Batteries Required! A Combinatorial Problem MS /HS Students Can Use...

Have you ever inserted batteries in a device only to find that it didn't work? You reverse the batteries and try again, but no luck. You can't find the polarity diagram to guide you and you're dealing with 3 or 4 batteries and all the possible combinations! Well, that just happened to me as I was inserting 3 'C' batteries into a new emergency lantern I just purchased. There was no guide that I could see. I knew there were 8 possibilities but it was late and my patience quickly ran out. I tried it again the following morning, shone my small LED light on it and saw the barely visible diagram.

After seeing the lantern finally operate, I realized I should have used a methodical approach -- practice what I preach!! Then I thought that this might be a natural application of the Multiplication Principle one could use in the classroom. Of course, it would work nicely if you happened to have the identical lantern but you might have some of these in the building or at home which take 2 or more batteries. IMO, there's something very real and exciting about solving a math problem and seeing the solution confirmed by having "the light go on!" I'll avoid commenting on the obvious symbolism of that quoted phrase...

Instructional/Pedagogical Considerations

(1) I would start with a small flashlight requiring only one battery to set up the problem. For this simplest case, students should be encouraged to describe the correct placement in their own words and on paper.

(2) Would you have several flashlights/lanterns available, one for each group of 2-4 students or would you demonstrate the problem with one device and call on students to suggest a placement of the batteries? Needless to say, if you allow students to work with their own flashlights, they will look for the polarity diagram so you will need to cover those somehow. That is problematic!

(3) Do you believe most middle school students (if the polarity diagram is not visible) will randomly dump in the batteries to get the light to go on and be the first to do so? Is it a good idea to let them do it their way before developing a methodical approach? Again, if a student or group solves the problem, it is important to have them write their solution before describing it to the class. If there is more than one battery compartment, students should realize realize the need to label the compartments such as A, B, C , ... Once they reach 3 or more batteries, they should recognize that a more structured methodical approach is needed so that one doesn't repeat the same battery placement or miss one. One would hope!

(4) Is it a drawback that the experiment will probably end (i.e., the light goes on) before exhausting all possible combinations? How would we motivate students to make an organized list or devise a methodical approach if the light goes on after the first or second placement of the batteries?

(5) I usually model these kinds of problems using the so-called "slot" method. Label the compartments A, B, ... for example and make a "slot" for each. For two compartments we have

A B
_ _

Under each slot, I list the possibilities, e.g., (+) end UP or DOWN (depending on the device, other words may be more appropriate). Here I would only concern myself with labeling the (+) end, the one with the small round protruding nub. For this problem I would write the number (2) on each slot since there are only TWO ways for each battery to be placed. Note the use of (..). In general, above each slot I would write the number of possibilities. For two compartments (or two batteries), the students would therefore write (2) (2). They know the answer is 4 but some will think we are adding rather than multiplying. Ask the class which operation they believe will always work. How would you express your questions or explanation to move students toward the multiplication model? The precise language we use is of critical importance and we usually only learn this by experimentation. If one way of expressing it doesn't seem to click with some students, we try another until we refine it or see the need for several ways of phrasing it. This is the true challenge of teaching IMO. We can plan all of this carefully ahead of time, but we don't know what the effect is until we go "live" (or have experienced it many times!).

Perhaps you've already used a similar application in the classroom - please share with us how you implemented it. Circuit diagrams in electronics also lend themselves nicely to this approach. Typically, I've used 2, 3 or more different coins to demonstrate the principle but the batteries seem to be a more natural example, although I see advantages and disadvantages to both. At least with the batteries, students should not question the issue of whether "order counts!"

I could say much more about developing the Multiplication Principle in the classroom, but I would rather hear from my readers.
If you've used other models to demo this key principle, let us know...

REMINDER!
MathNotations' Third Online Math Contest is tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct 12-16, a 5-day window to administer the 45-min contest and email the results. As with the previous contest, it will be FREE, up to two teams from a school may register and the focus will be on Geometry, Algebra II and Precalculus. If any public, charter, prep, parochial or homeschool (including international school) is interested, send me an email ASAP to receive registration materials: "dmarain 'at' gmail dot com."

(1) The first draft of the contest is now complete.
(2) As with the precious two contests there will be one or two questions which require demonstration, that is, the students will have to derive, explain or prove a statement. This is best done freehand and then scanned as a jpeg image which can be emailed as an attachment along with the official answer sheet. In fact, the entire answer sheet can be scanned but there is information on it that I need to have.
(3) Some of the questions are multipart with the last part requiring more generalization.
(4) Even if you have previously indicated that you wish to participate, please send me another email using the title: THIRD MATHNOTATIONS CONTEST. Please copy and paste that into the title. Also, when sending the email pls include your full name and title (advisor, teacher, supervisor, etc.), the name of your school (indicate if HS or Middle School) and the complete school address. I have accumulated a database of most of the schools which have expressed interest or previously participated but searching through thousands of emails is much easier when the title is the same! If you have already sent me an email this summer or previously participated, pls send me one more if interested in participating again.
Note: Sending me the email is not a commitment! It simply means you are interested and will receive a registration form.

## Thursday, August 27, 2009

### A Middle School Coin Puzzle To Start The Year

I have an equal number of pennies, nickels and dimes. I also have some quarters which have the same value as the pennies, nickels and dimes combined. If I have no other coins, what is the fewest possible total number of coins I could have? What is the value of all the coins?

(1) An opening day problem?
(2) Would you have students working alone or in small groups?
(3) Would you allow the calculator?
(4) Appropriate for prealgebra students? Students below grade 6?
(5) Is zero a possible answer?
(6) Wording too confusing for most students? Is it ambiguous or clear?
(7) Do you feel there are important underlying concepts and ideas embedded here or is it just a fun puzzle to engage students?
(8) Do students have difficulty in separating number of coins from their value?

REMINDER!
MathNotations' Third Online Math Contest is tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct 12-16, a 5-day window to administer the 45-min contest and email the results. As with the previous contest, it will be FREE, up to two teams from a school may register and the focus will be on Geometry, Algebra II and Precalculus. If any public, charter, prep, parochial or homeschool (including international school) is interested, send me an email ASAP to receive registration materials: "dmarain 'at' gmail dot com."

(1) The first draft of the contest is now complete.
(2) As with the precious two contests there will be one or two questions which require demonstration, that is, the students will have to derive, explain or prove a statement. This is best done freehand and then scanned as a jpeg image which can be emailed as an attachment along with the official answer sheet. In fact, the entire answer sheet can be scanned but there is information on it that I need to have.
(3) Some of the questions are multipart with the last part requiring more generalization.
(4) Even if you have previously indicated that you wish to participate, please send me another email using the title: THIRD MATHNOTATIONS CONTEST. Please copy and paste that into the title. Also, when sending the email pls include your full name and title (advisor, teacher, supervisor, etc.), the name of your school (indicate if HS or Middle School) and the complete school address. I have accumulated a database of most of the schools which have expressed interest or previously participated but searching through thousands of emails is much easier when the title is the same! If you have already sent me an email this summer or previously participated, pls send me one more if interested in participating again.
Note: Sending me the email is not a commitment! It simply means you are interested and will receive a registration form.

## Tuesday, August 25, 2009

### Update Week of 8-24-09: Contest Info

REMINDER!
MathNotations' Third Online Math Contest
is tentatively scheduled for the week of Oct 12-16, a 5-day window to administer the 45-min contest and email the results. As with the previous contest, it will be FREE, up to two teams from a school may register and the focus will be on Geometry, Algebra II and Precalculus. If any public, charter, prep, parochial or homeschool (including international school) is interested, send me an email ASAP to receive registration materials: "dmarain 'at' gmail dot com."

(1) The first draft of the contest is now complete.
(2) As with the precious two contests there will be one or two questions which require demonstration, that is, the students will have to derive, explain or prove a statement. This is best done freehand and then scanned as a jpeg image which can be emailed as an attachment along with the official answer sheet. In fact, the entire answer sheet can be scanned but there is information on it that I need to have.
(3) Some of the questions are multipart with the last part requiring more generalization.
(4) Even if you have previously indicated that you wish to participate, please send me another email using the title: THIRD MATHNOTATIONS CONTEST. Please copy and paste that into the title. Also, when sending the email pls include your full name and title (advisor, teacher, supervisor, etc.), the name of your school (indicate if HS or Middle School) and the complete school address. I have accumulated a database of most of the schools which have expressed interest or previously participated but searching through thousands of emails is much easier when the title is the same! If you have already sent me an email this summer or previously participated, pls send me one more if interested in participating again.
Note: Sending me the email is not a commitment! It simply means you will receive a registration form.

An aside...
I've been asking my kids questions every day to sharpen their minds for school which starts next week. I asked my son how he would spell, arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. He was confident he knew the first four letters: iraq....

## Thursday, August 20, 2009

### Challenge Their Minds Day 1 - A 'Means to an End'

With the school year starting for some and soon for others, here are a couple of ideas to set the tone in our math classes early on. Do not assume these are intended only for your advanced youngsters!

Middle School

1) (No calculator!) What is the average of ninety-nine 1's and one 2?

2) (No calculator!) Find 5 different sets of 5 numbers each of which has a mean of 5.

Note: The wording will be problematic here since students often associate the adjective different with the numbers themselves. Basic grammar, cough, cough...

High School (or advanced middle schoolers)

(No calculator!)
Set S consists of 100 different numbers each of which is between 0 and 1.
Which of the following could be the mean of these 100 numbers?

I. 0.01
II. 0.5
III. 0.98

(A) I only (B) II only (C) I and II (D) I and III (E) I, II, and III

[Yes, there will always be some discussion of "between!"]

(1) These problems are intended to be a springboard for your own creativity. You can do better!!

(2) Each of you probably has your own favorite resources of problems so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel. However, finding high-quality Problems of the Day which are matched to your curriculum is not always easy despite the abundant ancillaries supplied by the publisher and resources on the web.

(3) From the previous comment you can guess that I feel strongly about giving more challenging warm-ups to our students - all of our students (adjusted for backgrounds, abilities, skills). Don't worry that discussion of these will destroy your lesson. Students can work together for 5 minutes while you're taking attendance, checking homework, etc. I usually invited students who solved some or all of these to go to the board and explain their methods. To encourage students to look these over, tell them you will include a variation of one of these questions on the next quiz or test. Start by having it as an Extra Credit problem, then worth a couple of points, gradually increasing their value.

(4) Imagine if our students were exposed to these higher-order types of questions about 180 times a year from middle school on. By the time they take their college-entrance exams or other state assessments (or tests like the ADP End of Course Exams), they will have a much higher degree of comfort and should perform better, although we know that there are so many other factors that go into performance on high-stakes tests.

(5) Yes, the above high school problem is in SAT format. Why do you think I included these kinds on my daily warm-ups? By the way, I'm not promoting ETS but middle and high school teachers may well want to invest in (or ask their supervisor to order) the College Board's book of
10 Real SATs. There is no better source for these kinds of problems and many questions are appropriate for middle schoolers.

## Tuesday, August 4, 2009

### Another 'Average' Problem for Standardized Tests and Conceptual Understanding

After 4 tests, Barry's average score was 5 points higher than Michelle's. After the 5th test, Michelle's overall average was 5 points higher than Barry's. Michelle's score on the 5th test was how many points higher than Barry's?

Can you find at least three methods for solving this?
Algebraic, "plug-in", conceptual, etc...

As teachers we need to have a deep understanding of these kinds of problems and familiarity with several approaches. Of course, our students will show us a variety of methods, both right and wrong, when we open up the dialog!

Students from middle school on see many problems relating to means. However, they need to see a variety of problems of increasing difficulty. This question is certainly not a highly challenging math contest problem but I believe it demonstrates some important principles of averages and can be used to review different problem-solving strategies. Middle schoolers would struggle with the algebraic approach (a system of two equations), however they should be thoroughly comfortable with the underlying ideas.

Since the focus is on concept and method, I will give the answer: 45

## Saturday, August 1, 2009

### Using "SAT-Type" Problems to Develop Understanding of Quadratic Functions in Algebra

f(x) = t-2(x+4)2 where t is a constant.
If f(-8.3) = f(a) and a > 0, what is the value of a?

This type of question is of the Grid-in type (or short constructed response) that now appears on standardized testing like the SAT-I and ADP Algebra 2.

I administered it to a group of strong SAT students recently and the students who completed Alg II struggled with it. As our president might say, this was a "teachable moment!"

A few thoughts...
Should textbooks include more questions of this type both as examples and regular homework exercises? As you might guess, I'm very much opposed to having questions labeled as Standardized Test Practice in texts or appear in a separate section of the text or in ancillaries.

By the way, by including the label "SAT-type problems" in the title of this post I'm trying to engender both positive and negative response. Those of you who have followed this blog for 2- 1/2 years know that what I'm really referring to are "conceptually-based questions." Some of you react adversely to the idea that standardized test questions should influence our curriculum or how we teach. N'est-ce pas?