What a great day of math sharing today at the ATMOPAV (Association of Teachers of Mathematics of Philadelphia and Vicinity) conference at Strath Haven High School, near Philly. First, interesting “function dances” and iPad applications on developing function concepts by Scott Steketee. Then, insights into the Common Core emphasis on functions, with assessment examples from PARCC, from John Mahoney.

In the afternoon, I enjoyed presenting my session, “Encouraging Perseverance in Problem Solving” to an enthusiastic group. Hope they all find something of value from the session to take back to their schools! My speaker slides, and some related videos and handouts, are below.

One of the more intriguing math-related websites I have been following this year is 101qs.com by Dan Meyer. The site has a simple concept: you are presented with a picture or short video clip, and are asked to contribute the first question that comes to your mind. I have contributed a fewitems to the site, and reading some of the questions posed often leads me in directions I hadn’t initially considered. How neat! You can also view questions which others have contributed for each item. The pictures and videos are meant to serve as “first acts“, mathematical conversation-starters which lead to problem-solving discussions.

What I like most about this site is that there are no answers. Rather, our focus shifts to posing interesting questions, facilitating meaningful discussions of problem solving methods, and working towards plausible solutions.

As the site became populated with more “first acts”, I recruited volunteers in my district to find a way to use this site with their classes. I found two high school teachers, who were eager to share their Academic (our most basic) Geometry classes. It’s a shame that we often reserve interesting, open-ended tasks for our highest achieving kids, so I was interested to see how these groups would take to the project. And while my high school colleagues were enthusiastic about using the site to develop a task for their students, there were some natural questions about managing the task: How will kids react to having such an open-ended task? Will they persist in completing the task? How will we assess their work?

Note: one teacher I am working with attempted to utilize the site, after we had some discussions of a project, but found that her students were blocked from the site at school, due to its YouTube links. I have since taken care of this snag, but you may need some coaxing with your higher-ups.

We settled upon a structure to help kids step through the task. In day 1, partnerships of students will:

Select an item to explore.

State your question.

Develop a plan of attack and list measurements you will need to consider.

List the math (formulas or concepts) you will need.

The partnerships will then meet with the teacher to discuss their ideas and revise, if necessary. The task then moves on to day 2:

Complete the plan of attack.

Answer the question.

Reflect upon your process and state any changes or improvements.

To complete the task, students will create a presentation which steps through their question. In order to help students understand the task and our expectations, I visited the classes, and modeled the process for one of the Top 10 pictures from the site: the Ticket Roll.

The class discussions were rich, and allowed many students to provide ideas: How many tickets are there? How long is the roll? How will we find the thickness of a ticket? How precise do we need to be? Why are we doing this? In both classes I visited, we discussed the dis-comfort we feel when we have a question without a known answer, and how rare it is to have this happen in math class. To complete the ticket roll problem, I shared a Prezi I made to model our expectations:

As students complete this task, look for an update here and I will share some of the presentations. Would love to hear all of your ideas for how to utilize this rich resource!

In my last post, we looked at an AMC-12 problem of moderate difficulty, but with an premise that could be understood by many. This time, we’ll take a look at a problem which delves into more abstract concepts, and explore how technology can allow students to consider solutions. The following problem was question #23 from this year’s AMC-12.

Let S be the square one of whose diagonals has endpoints (0.1, 0.7) and (-0.1, -0.7). A point v = (x,y) is chosen uniformly at random over all real numbers x and y such that x is between 0 and 2012, inclusive, and y is between 0 and 2012, inclusive. Let T(v) be a translated copy of S centered at v. What is the probability that the square region determined by T(v) contains exactly two points with integer coordinates in its interior?

In this year’s contest, where over 72,000 students participated, this question was answered correctly by only 4.5% of students, and was left blank by 81.6%.

Tomorrow morning, write this question in its entirety on a side board, and observe student reactions. How many students begin to sketch the square described in the first sentence? How many ask questions about some of the sophisticated language? How many shrug and turn away? This problem presents a number of chance for students to summarize given information, summarize “scary” language, and consider possibilities.

The first sentence describes a task which all geometry students, regardless of phase or level, can pursue. Give students the task of telling you everything they can about that square, and share out their ideas. Let’s look at it piece-by-piece. First, we have a diagonal with defined endpoints:

Can we find the other diagonal? This is a great opportunity to look at perpendicular bisectors, and consider slope. After the other diagonal is found, we can see the given square:

Is there anything else we might need to know about this square? Can we find its side lengths? How can we find its dimensions? Another nice connection, to our old friend the Pythagorean Theorem, emerges…

How convenient for us! We have a unit square, where all sides have length 1. Even if we don’t consider the rest or the problem, think about how rich of a discussion we have already had!

Now for the scary part….all that spooky language. But is it so bad really? What is the question really asking us to do? Challenge students to re-write the premise of this problem, so that it can be explained easily to a friend or neighbor. Here’s what we are being asked to do:

Pick any random point in the first quadrant, but don’t go above 2012 for x or y. We’ll call it point v.

Take the square we just made, and copy it, so that v is the center.

How likely is it that the new square contains two points with “integer coordinates”? This is great time to introduce the term “lattice point”.

Here’s an example of what we are looking at. The original square remains at the origin, but a new one, with center v1, has also been introduced. Notice that this new square captures only one lattice point.

So, how are we going to find that wicked probability? Using Geometer’s Sketchpad, I created a model of this problem, which students could then use to explore the premise. Contact me if you would like the Sketchpad file to use. Enjoy my tinkering in the video below:

Encourage your students to break down problems into smaller, digestible pieces, and not be afraid or scary-looking language. The rich class discussions which come from allowing time for questions to stew and worth it!

So, what’s the answer? Below is a link to a great summary video by Richard Rusczyk from the excellent website artofproblemsolving.com. It’s perfect for sharing with your classes after you have explored the problem and discussed ideas: http://youtu.be/9ytTJr6ctwY

One of the many tasks I perform for my school district is serving as math club sponsor. While I often attempt to find interesting activities and experiences for the club, many students join math club to participate in the contests we tackle each year, and this month tends to be a particularly busy period for contests. In-house contests include the Pennsylvania Math League and the American Mathematics Competition exam series. Today, I am writing my blog post from a lecture hall at Lehigh University, while two floors below hundreds of students are participating in an annual contest organized by Dr. Don Davis, who uses the event to recruit students for his American Regions Math League teams. Tomorrow, two teams of students I work with will attempt the Moody’s Math Challenge, where students are given 14 hours to complete and open-ended question and submit a solution.

I recall a conversation I had with a math department head I worked with when I first became a teacher, and the conversation centered around why our school didn’t have a math club. The veteran teacher responded that he didn’t believe in doing math problems as competition, and I suppose that I agree with the essence of his argument: that sitting alone, isolated, doing a series of problems may not be the most enriching of pursuits. But the conversations that take place surrounding challenging problems can lead in interesting directions which often encourage collaborative thinking and build confidence in approaching “scary-looking” problems.

The problems from the AMC 10 and 12 exams, in particular, lend themselves to discussions of problem-solving approaches. Each exam is set up with 25 multiple-choice questions which loosely go in sequence from least to most challenging. Many students I coach can handle the first 10 to 12 questions, and may venture as high as question 20, before sensing that the questions have taken a turn towards the evil…questions with wording and symbols beyond their experiences.

We can use contest questions to encourage not only higher-level thinking from all of our students, but also develop persistence in problem solving. Consider the following problem, which was #15 on this years AMC-12:

A 3×3 square is partitioned into 9 unit squares. Each unit square is painted either white or black with each color being equally likely, chosen independently and at random. The square is then rotated 90 degrees clockwise about its center, and every white square in a position formerly occupied by a black square is painted black. The colors of all other squares are left unchanged. What is the probability that the grid is now entirely black?

This is a problem 15 from the contest, which implies that it is bordering on the medium to hard-type of problem. I like this question for two reasons:

It’s a probability question. I know that these types of problems often appeal to me, as opposed to geometry questions, which often interest me less.

It has an accessible premise. While we may have trouble down the road computing the probability, this problem can be easily de-constructed, simulated and discussed, even by middle-school students.

We can walk through this problem by giving students some 3×3 grids and a black marker. According to the problem, each square is painted white or black at random. Have students make their own grids, then make a copy of it, which will then be rotated 90 degrees:

Then, follow the directions to make an altered grid: every white square in a position formerly occupied by a black square becomes black. All other squares are left unchanged. In the example below, our grid fails, since the results is not all black.

Where can we head from here? Depending on the maturity and sophistication of the students, there are a few paths to consider:

With younger students, hand out some pre-made grids, where some will become all black after the transformation. Can students categorize those which become all black?

For more sophisticated students, hand out more 3×3 grids and experiment to see if they can develop one or more grids which satisfy the problem.

For some students, the problem may stop here, which is fine. The experience of having tackled part of a complex problem is a success unto itself. You can even let the problem stew with students for a few days to discuss with friends and parents before reaching some conclusions. In this problem, there are 3 dependencies, 3 different aspects of the grid to consider:

The center square must be black

The corner squares (A,B,C,D, below) must meet certain arrangements

The non-corner squares (e,f,g,h, below) must also meet certain arrangements

Can we list arrangements for ABCD which will result in all black? Certainly black-black-black-black works, but so does white-black-white-black. Are there others? This then shifts the nature of the problem from a scary-looking probability question to a more tame (but still semi-scary) counting problem. I’ll leave the counting to you and your students.

In my next post, we’ll look at a geometry example from this year’s AMC-12.