Ramanujan and Futurama

From a recent article that appeared in the BBC:

The year 1913 marked the beginning of an extraordinary relationship between an impoverished Indian clerk and a Cambridge don. A century later, their remarkable friendship has left its mark in the strangest of places, namely in Futurama, the animated series from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and physics graduate David X Cohen…

For example, in order to pay homage to Ramanujan, Keeler has repeatedly inserted 1,729 into Futurama, because this particular number cropped up in a famous conversation between Hardy and Ramanujan.

According to Hardy, he visited Ramanujan in a nursing home in 1918: “I remember once going to see him when he was lying ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.’ “…

It is in recognition of Ramanujan’s comment that Bender, Futurama’s cantankerous robot, has the unit number 1729.

The number also appears in an episode titled “The Farnsworth Parabox”. The plot involves Futurama characters hopping between multiple universes, and one of them is labelled “Universe 1729”.

Moreover, the starship Nimbus has the hull registration number BP-1729.

 

 

 

Engaging students: Finding points in the coordinate plane

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Derek Skipworth. His topic, from Pre-Algebra: finding points in the coordinate plane.

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A. Applications – How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

When I think of the coordinate plane, one of the first things that come to mind is mapping.  When I think of my teenage years, I think of how I always wanted more money.  By using these two ideas together, an activity could easily be created to get the students involved in the lesson: a treasure map!

The first part of the activity would be providing the students with a larger grid.  Then provide them with a list of landmarks/items at different locations (i.e. skull cave at (3,2)) that would then be mapped onto the grid.  By starting out with one landmark, you could also build off previously identified landmarks, such as “move 3 units East and 4 units North to find the shipwreck.  The shipwreck is located at what coordinates?”   These steps could also be based off generic formulas with solutions for x and y.  After all landmarks were identified, there would be a guide below that would trace out a path to find the treasure, which is only discovered after the full path is completed.

treasuremapCourtesy of paleochick.blogspot.com

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B. Curriculum: How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

One of the good things about the exercise above is that it integrates several different ideas into one. A big one that stands out to me is following procedures.  This is vital once you get into high school sciences.  By building the map step-by-step, which each one building off the previous step, you cannot find the treasure without replicating the map exactly if you miss/misinterpret a step along the way.

As far as the coordinate plane, finding locations on the plane is important when graphing functions.  Being able to find the intercepts and any asymptotes gives you starting points to work with.  From there you generally only need a few more points to create a line of the function based off plotted points.  This also has applications in science/math when creating bar graphs/line graphs and similar graphs.

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D.  How was this topic adopted by the mathematical community?

As discussed in my Geometry class this semester (Krueger), the Cartesian plane opened up a lot of doors in the world of Geometry.  Euclid had already established a great working knowledge of a vast amount of Geometric ideas and figures.  One thing he did not establish was length.  In his teachings, there were relative terms such as “smaller than” or “larger than”.  No values were ever assigned to his figures though.  By introducing the Cartesian plane (and in effect, being able to plot points on said plane), we were able to actually assign values to these figures and advance our mathematical knowledge.  The Cartesian plane acts as a bridge between Algebra and Geometry that did not exist before.  Because of this, we can know solve problems based in Geometry without ever even needing to draw the figure in the first place (example: Pythagorean Theorem).

Engaging students: Solving linear systems of equations with matrices

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Alyssa Dalling. Her topic, from Algebra II: finding the area of a square or rectangle.

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A. What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

A fun way to engage students on the topic of solving systems of equations using matrices is by using real world problems they can actually understand. Below are some such problems that students can relate to and understand a purpose in finding the result.

  • The owner of Campbell Florist is assembling flower arrangements for Valentine’s Day. This morning, she assembled one large flower arrangement and found it took her 8 minutes. After lunch, she arranged 2 small arrangements and 15 large arrangements which took 130 minutes. She wants to know how long it takes her to complete each type of arrangement.

(Idea and solution on http://www.ixl.com/math/algebra-1/solve-a-system-of-equations-using-augmented-matrices-word-problems )

  • The Lakers scored a total of 80 points in a basketball game against the Bulls. The Lakers made a total of 37 two-point  and three-point baskets. How many two-point shots did the Lakers make? How many three-point shots did the Lakers make?

(Idea and solution on http://www.algebra-class.com/system-of-equations-word-problems.html )

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A. How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

  • For this topic, creating a fun activity would be one of the best ways to help students learn and explore solving systems of equations using matrices. One way in which this could be done is by creating a fun engaging activity that allows the students to use matrices while completing a fun task. The type of activity I would create would be a sort of “treasure hunt.” Students would have a question they are trying to find the solution for using matrices. They would solve the system of equations and use that solution to count to the letter in the alphabet that corresponds to the number they found. In the end, the solution would create different blocks of letters that the student would have to unscramble.

For Example: The top of the page would start a joke such as “What did the Zero say to the Eight?…

Solve x+y=26 and 4x+12y=90 using matrices.

To solve this, the student would put this information into a matrix and find the solution came out to be x=12 and y=14. They would count in the alphabet and see that the 12th letter was L and the 14th letter was N. Then at the bottom of their page, they would find where it said to write the letters for x and y such as below-

N  __  __  __     __  __    L  __! (Nice Belt!)

x     a    c    z       d    z     y    w

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E. How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

This activity would be used after students have learned the basics of putting a matrix into their calculator to solve. The class would be separated into small groups (>5 or more if possible with 2-3 kids per group) The rules are as follows: a group can work together to set up the equation, but each individual in the group had to come up to the board and write out their groups matrices and solution. The teacher would hand out a paper of 8-12 problems and tell the students they can begin. The first group to finish all the problems correctly on the board wins. There would be problems ranging from 2 variables to 4.

Ex: One of the problems could be  and . The groups would have to first solve this on their paper using their calculator then the first person would come up to the board to write how they solved it-

Written on the board:

Alyssa_system

The technology of calculators allows this to be a fun and fast paced game. It will allow students to understand how to use their calculator better while allowing them to have fun while learning.

Engaging students: Dividing fractions

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Dale Montgomery. His topic, from Pre-Algebra: dividing fractions.

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Applications

A Short Play On Numbers

By: Dale Montgomery

You see two brothers talking in the playground.

Timmy: (little brother) Gee Jonny, it sure was a good idea to sell Joe our old Pokémon deck. Now he finally has some cards to play with and we have some money to buy some new cards.

Jonny: (older brother) Yeah, I am glad we could help him get started. He has been wanting some cards for so long. Ok, you have the money so give me half.

Timmy: Ummm… (puzzling) Jonny I don’t know how to make half of 6 dollars and fifty cents, can you help?

Jonny: Of course Timmy, I learned how to divide fractions last week… lets see. (Jonny writes on the board 6 and ½ divided by 1/2 and does the division)

Timmy: How is half more than what we started with?

Jonny: I don’t know, this is the way my teacher taught me to do it. I guess you just have to find 13 dollars to give me so I can have half.

End Scene

Teacher: So class, what did Jonny do?

I came up with this idea thinking about the student asked question regarding dividing pie in half. I feel this could be a common misconception that would be addressed if we could teach students to think about math in context, rather than just a process. Dividing fractions is not the easiest thing to conceive. This short skit could be presented in any number of formats. I like the idea of having some sort of recorded show, just because it would make the intro to class go much faster. This skit introduces a situation that is very similar to word problems that children do. Also, the content can easily be modified to fit the majority class interest. For example it could have been an old Nintendo DS game that the brothers no longer play. This puts a problem that could be very real for the students right in front of them to figure out the correct process. It could lead to good discussion and make for a good lesson on dividing fractions.

 

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Manipulative

Fraction bars are great tools to help students visualize dividing fractions. For example, if you wanted to divide 2/3 by 1/6 you would line up two of the third bars alongside one of the sixth bar and find out how many times that fraction goes into 2 thirds. In this case it would be four. Fractions themselves are extremely difficult to visualize, and dividing by fractions seems conceptually ridiculous.  It can be difficult to adjust student’s thinking to this area. A manipulative like fraction bars are a good starting point in helping kids understand just how fractions work.

FractionBars

 

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Curriculum, future uses

The topic of dividing fractions has many uses in future courses. Primarily these will be in algebra 1 and 2 for most students. Having a good conceptual knowledge of fractions will help students tremendously in these courses. As an algebra student you would be required to use your knowledge of fractions on an almost daily basis. Being introduced to the concept of multiple variables and canceling them out as you divide polynomials is a very complicated process that gets even more complicated if you do not understand fractions. Laying this conceptual framework is important when you consider all that students must use these concepts for at the higher level math classes. As you consider this in the lessons don’t forget the previous concepts held here such as grouping into equal parts and counting by intervals (3,6,9).

 

 

Why do we still require students to rationalize denominators?

Which answer is simplified: \displaystyle \frac{1}{2 \sqrt{2}} or \displaystyle \frac{ \sqrt{2} }{4}? From example, here’s a simple problem from trigonometry:

Suppose \theta is an acute angle so that \sin \theta = \displaystyle \frac{1}{3}. Find \tan \theta.

triangle13

To solve, we make a right triangle whose side opposite of \theta has length 1 and hypotenuse with length 3. The adjacent side has length \sqrt{3^2 - 1^2} = \sqrt{8} = 2\sqrt{2}. Therefore,

\tan \theta = \displaystyle \frac{ \hbox{Opposite} }{ \hbox{Adjacent} } = \displaystyle \frac{1}{2 \sqrt{2}}

This is the correct answer, and it could be plugged into a calculator to obtain a decimal approximation. However, in my experience, it seems that most students are taught that this answer is not yet simplified, and that they must rationalize the denominator to get the “correct” answer:

\tan \theta = \displaystyle \frac{1}{2 \sqrt{2}} \cdot \frac{ \sqrt{2} }{ \sqrt{2} } = \displaystyle \frac{ \sqrt{2} }{4}

Of course, this is equivalent to the first answer. So my question is philosophical: why are students taught that the first answer isn’t simplified but the second is? Stated another way, why is a square root in the numerator so much more preferable than a square root in the denominator?

Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that rationalizing denominators is a vestige of an era before cheap pocket calculators. Let’s go back in time to an era before pocket calculators… say, 1927, when The Jazz Singer was just released and stars of silent films, like Don Lockwood, were trying to figure out how to act in a talking movie.

Before cheap pocket calculators, how would someone find \displaystyle \frac{1}{2 \sqrt{2}} ~~ or ~~ \displaystyle \frac{ \sqrt{2} }{4} to nine decimal places? Clearly, the first step is finding \sqrt{2} by hand, which I discussed in a previous post. So these expressions reduce to

\displaystyle \frac{1}{2 (1.41421356\dots)} or \displaystyle \frac{1.41421356\dots}{4}

Next comes the step of dividing. If you don’t have a calculator and had to use long division, which would rather do: divide by 4 or divide by 2.82842712\dots?

Clearly, long division with 4 is easier.

It seems to me that ease of computation was the reason that rationalizing denominators was required of students in previous generations. So I’m a little bemused why rationalizing denominators is still required of students now that cheap calculators are so prevalent.

Lest I be misunderstood, I absolutely believe that all students should be able to convert \displaystyle \frac{1}{2 \sqrt{2}} into \displaystyle \frac{ \sqrt{2} }{4}. But I see no compelling reason why the “simplified” answer to the above trigonometry problem should be the second answer and not the first.

Can ants do math?

A hat-tip to my former student Matt Wolodko, who directed me to this interesting article about whether ants are able to count.

Reactions and commentary can be found in the links below.

http://inspiringscience.wordpress.com/2012/11/09/do-ants-really-count-their-steps/

http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/06/01/120587095/ants-that-count

http://www.livescience.com/871-ants-marching-count-steps.html

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9436-ants-use-pedometers-to-find-home.html#.UfAfsdhk31E

http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/av/dn9436.mpg

Correlation and causation

xkcdcorrelation

Source: http://www.xkcd.com/552/

Engaging students: Mathematical induction

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Dale Montgomery. His topic, from Precalculus: mathematical induction.

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Technology

https://www.khanacademy.org/math/trigonometry/seq_induction/proof_by_induction/v/proof-by-induction

Looking at Khanacademy’s video on mathematical induction, I feel like he has one of the better explanations of mathematical induction that I have heard. This lends itself well to starting class off with a video to engage, and then moving on to an explore where the students test what can or can’t be proved by induction. This quick explanation by Khan gives a good starting point, and the fact that his videos are interesting should be sufficient enough to engage the students. Another possibility is to have the students watch this at home, that way you have more time during class do work on learning how to use the principle of induction.

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Application

This problem, and proof (taken from Wikipedia) has flawed logic. In it, it uses the principle of mathematical induction. This would be a good engage because it has supposedly sound logic but it says something that is obviously not true. This will engage the students by showing them something that doesn’t make sense. This will cause a imbalance in their thinking, and make them want to make sense of the situation. I would probably present it as a bell ringer or similar problem, after induction has been introduced.

All horses are the same color

The argument is proof by induction. First we establish a base case for one horse (n = 1). We then prove that if n horses have the same color, then n+1  horses must also have the same color.

Base case: One horse

The case with just one horse is trivial. If there is only one horse in the “group”, then clearly all horses in that group have the same color.

Inductive step

Assume that n  horses always are the same color. Let us consider a group consisting of n+1 horses.

First, exclude the last horse and look only at the first  horses; all these are the same color since  horses always are the same color. Likewise, exclude the first horse and look only at the last  horses. These too, must also be of the same color. Therefore, the first horse in the group is of the same color as the horses in the middle, who in turn are of the same color as the last horse. Hence the first horse, middle horses, and last horse are all of the same color, and we have proven that:

  • If n horses have the same color, then n+1  horses will also have the same color.

We already saw in the base case that the rule (“all horses have the same color”) was valid for n=1 . The inductive step showed that since the rule is valid for n=1 , it must also be valid for n=2 , which in turn implies that the rule is valid for n=3 and so on.

Thus in any group of horses, all horses must be the same color.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_horses_are_the_same_color )

The explanation relies on the fact that a set of a single element cannot have 2 different sets with the same element. Because this assumption cannot be made, the case of n=2 falls apart and tears the argument apart.

 

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Application

Dominoes have been talked about as a way to explain mathematical induction. The idea that if you can prove that the first one falls, and you can prove that in general if a domino falls, the one after it will fall, you can prove that the entire row of dominoes would fall. I think it would be fun to students to actually demonstrate this idea. It would even be fun to illustrate what would happen if you cannot prove that the first one falls by gluing the dominoes to whatever surface that you are using (not the table).

The idea would be to have it set up as the students walked in and ask them what would happen if you pushed over the first domino. After that test the hypothesis with one row (you should probably have multiple rows set up for this). Then introduce the concepts of base case and induction step using the dominos. Then you can ask well what if we cannot push the first domino over, does that mean we cannot show that all of the dominos will fall? After this you can start taking the concept of dominos and applying it to Mathematical induction.

dominoes

Calculating course averages

And the end of every semester, instructors are often asked “What do I need on the final to make a ___ in the course?”, where the desired course grade is given. (I’ve never done a survey, but A appears to be the most desired course grade, followed by C, D, and B.) Here’s the do-it-yourself algorithm that I tell my students, in which the final counts for 20% of the course average.

Let F be the grade on the final exam, and let D be the up-to-date course average prior to the final. Then the course average is equal to 0.2F + 0.8D.

Somehow, students don’t seem comforted by this simple algebra.

green lineMore seriously, here’s a practical tip for students to determine what they need on the final to get a certain grade (hat tip to my friend Jeff Cagle for this idea). It’s based on the following principle:

If the average of x_1, x_2, \dots x_n is \overline{x}, then the average of x_1 + c, x_2 + c, \dots, x_n + c is \overline{x} + c. In other words, if you add a constant to a list of values, then the average changes by that constant.

As an application of this idea, let’s try to guess the average of 78, 82, 88, 90. A reasonable guess would be something like 85. So subtract 85 from all four values, obtaining -7, -3, 3, 5. The average of these four differences is (-7-3+3+5)/4 = -0.5. Therefore, the average of the original four numbers is 85 + (-0.5) = 84.5.

So here’s a typical student question: “If my average right now is an 88, and the final is worth 20\% of my grade, then what do I need to get on the final to get a 90?” Answer: The change in the average needs to be +2, so the student needs to get a grade +2/0.2 = +10 points higher than his/her current average. So the grade on the final needs to be 88 + 10 = 98.

Seen another way, we’re solving the algebra problem

88(0.8) + x(0.2) = 90

Let me solve this in an unorthodox way:

88(0.8) + x(0.2) = 88 + 2

88(0.8) + x(0.2) = 88(0.8+0.2) + 2

88(0.8) + x(0.2) = 88(0.8) + 88(0.2) + 2

x(0.2) = 88(0.2) + 2

x = \displaystyle \frac{88(0.2)}{0.2} + \frac{2}{0.2}

x = 88 + \displaystyle \frac{2}{0.2}

This last line matches the solution found in the previous paragraph, x = 88 + 10 = 98.

Engaging students: Computing inverse functions

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission comes from my former student Derek Skipworth. His topic, from Algebra II: computing inverse functions.

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B. How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

In essence, an inverse function is supposed to “undo” what the original function did to the original input.  Knowing how to properly create inverse functions gives you the ultimate tool for checking your work, something valuable for any math course.  Another example is Integrals in Calculus.  This is an example of an inverse operation on an existing derivative.  A stronger example of using actual inverse functions is directly applied to Abstract Algebra when inverse matrices are needed to be found.

 

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C. How has this topic appeared in high culture?

The idea of inverse functions can be found in many electronics.  My hobby is 2-channel stereo.  Everyone has stereos, but it is viewed as a “higher culture” hobby when you get into the depths that I have reached at this point.  One thing commonly found is Chinese electronics.  How does this correlate to my topic?  Well, the strength of the Chinese is that they are able to offer very similar products comparable to high-end, high-dollar products at a fraction of the costs.  While it is true that they do skimp on some parts, the biggest reason they are able to do this is because of their reverse engineering.  Through reverse engineering, they do not suffer the massive overhead of R&D that the “respectable” companies have.  Lower overhead means lower cost to the consumer.  Because of the idea of working in reverse, “better” products are available to the masses at cheaper prices, thus improving the opportunity for upgrades in 2-channel.

 

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E. How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

A few years ago, there was a game released on Xbox 360 arcade called Braid.  It was a commercial and critical success.  The gameplay was designed around a character who could reverse time.  The trick was that there were certain obstacles in each level that prevented the character from reversing certain actions.  To tie technology into a lesson plan, I would choose a slightly challenging level and have the class direct me through the level.  This would tie into a group activity where the students are required to calculate inverse functions to reverse their steps (like Braid) and eventually solve a “master” problem that would complete the activity.  This activity could be loosely based off a second level that could wrap up the class based off the results that each group produced from the activity.

http://braid-game.com/