Lessons from teaching gifted elementary school students (Part 4b)

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:

What is the chance of winning a game of BINGO after only four turns?

When my class posed this question, I was a little concerned that the getting the answer might be beyond the current abilities of a gifted elementary student.  Still, what I love about this question is that it gave me a way to teach my class some techniques of probabilistic reasoning that probably would not occur in a traditional elementary school setting.

As discussed yesterday, for a non-standard BINGO game with 44 numbers, the answer is

\displaystyle 4 \times \frac{4}{44} \times \frac{3}{43} \times \frac{2}{42} \times \frac{1}{41}

For a standard BINGO board with 75 numbers, the denominators are instead 75, 74, 73, and 72.

Now, for the next challenge: getting my students to simplify this product. I’m always mystified when college students blindly multiply numerators and denominators together without bothering to attempt to cancel common factors. Fortunately, this class already understands how to simplify fractions, and so the next step was easy:

\displaystyle 4 \times \frac{1}{11} \times \frac{3}{43} \times \frac{1}{21} \times \frac{1}{41}

 So I was ready for the next step: cancelling 3 from the numerator and denominator. To my surprise, this was a major stumbling block. I tried probing around to prod them to perform this cancellation, but no luck. Eventually, I guessed the issue that my class was facing: they were familiar with the mechanics of both adding and multiplying fractions and also with writing fractions in lowest terms, but they weren’t yet comfortable enough with fractions to cancel 3 from the numerator of one fraction and the denominator of a different fraction.

So, toward this end, I asked my class if it was OK to shuffle a couple of the numerators and rewrite this product as

\displaystyle 4 \times \frac{1}{11} \times \frac{1}{43} \times \frac{3}{21} \times \frac{1}{41}

It took a moment, but then they agreed that this was OK because the order of multiplication doesn’t matter, even volunteering the word commutative to explain their reasoning. (I’m going to try to remember this technique for future reference as a way to get students new to fractions more comfortable with similar cancellations.) Once they got past this conceptual barrier, it was straightforward to continue the simplification:

\displaystyle 4 \times \frac{1}{11} \times \frac{1}{43} \times \frac{1}{7} \times \frac{1}{41}

= \displaystyle \frac{4}{135,751}

So I explained that if a game of BINGO took one minute, we could play round the clock for 135,751 minutes (about 96 days) and expect to win in the minimal number of turns only four times. Not very likely at all. (Though I didn’t discuss this with my class, the answer is even smaller with a standard BINGO game with 75 numbers: you’d expect to win only once every 211 days.)

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