Every so often, I’ll informally teach a class of gifted elementary-school students. I greatly enjoy interacting with them, and I especially enjoy the questions they pose. Often these children pose questions that no one else will think about, and answering these questions requires a surprisingly depth of mathematical knowledge.

Here’s a question I once received:

Suppose

If the pattern goes on, and if , what is ?

I leave a thought bubble in case you’d like to think this. One way of answering this question appears after the bubble.

Let’s calculate the first few terms to try to find a pattern:

etc.

Written another way,

Continuing the pattern, we see that , or .

If you try plugging that number into your calculator, you’ll probably get an error. Fortuniately, we can use logarithms to approximate the answer. Since , we have

Plugging into a calculator, we find that

When this actually happened to me, it took me about 10 seconds to answer — without a calculator — “I’m not sure, but I do know that the answer has about 10 million digits.” Naturally, my class was amazed. How did I do this so quickly? I saw that the answer was going to be , so I used the approximation to estimate

Next, I had memorized the fact that that . So I multiplied by to get approximately 10 million. As it turned out, this approximation was a lot more accurate than I had any right to expect.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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5 thoughts on “Lessons from teaching gifted elementary school students (Part 2)”

John, can you fix the typo in the equation before the last paragraph? It says, or implies, (2^2)5 because the 5 didn’t get superscripted, when you really mean 2^(25). Threw me off for a bit! Thanks for a great post!

John, can you fix the typo in the equation before the last paragraph? It says, or implies, (2^2)5 because the 5 didn’t get superscripted, when you really mean 2^(25). Threw me off for a bit! Thanks for a great post!

Thanks for catching that. It’s been fixed.