Engaging students: Finding prime factorizations

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 Brittnee Lein. Her topic, from Pre-Algebra: finding prime factorizations.

green line

• How has this topic appeared in the news?

Prime factorization is key to protecting many aspects of modern convenience. The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic states that every number can be broken down into a sum of two prime numbers. For relatively small numbers, this is no big deal; but for very large numbers, not even computers can easily break these down. Many online security systems rely on this principle. For example, if you shop online and enter your credit card information, websites protect that information from hackers through a process of encryption.

Something for students to think about in the classroom: Can you come up with any formula to break down numbers into their prime factors?

Answer: No! That’s why encryption is considered a secure form of cryptography. To this date, there is no confirmed algorithm for prime factorization.

Prime factorization is a classic example of a problem in the NP class. An NP class problem can be thought of as a problem whose solution is easily verified once it is found but not necessarily easily or quickly solved by either humans or computers. The P vs. NP problem is one that has perplexed computer scientists and mathematicians since it was first formulated in 1971. Most recently, a German scientist Norbert Blum has claimed to solve the P vs. NP problem in this article: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/evvp34/p-vs-np-alleged-solution-nortbert-blum

Also in recent years, A Texas student has been featured on Dallas County Community Colleges Blog for his work to find an algorithm for prime numbers: http://blog.dcccd.edu/2015/07/%E2%80%8Btexas-math-student-strives-to-solve-the-unsolvable/

green line

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

An activity for inquiry based learning of prime numbers and prime factorization utilizes pop cubes. Students will start out with a single color-coded cube representative of the number two (the first prime), they will then move up the list of natural numbers with each prime number having its own color of cube. The composite numbers will have the same colors as their prime factors. The idea is that students will visually see that prime numbers are only divisible by themselves (each being a lone cube) and that composite numbers are simply composed of primes (multiple cubes). A good point of discussion is the meaning of the word “composite’. You could ask students what they think the word ‘composite’ means and what word it reminds them of. This leads into the idea that every composite number is composed of prime numbers. This idea comes from online vlogger Thom Gibson and the RL Moore Inquiry Based Learning Conference. Below is a picture demonstrating the cube idea:

This foundational idea can be segued into The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic and then into prime factorization.
One of the most practical real-world applications of prime factorization is encryption. This activity I found makes use of prime factorization in a way that is interesting and different from simply making factor trees. This worksheet would be a good assessment and challenge for students and mimics a real –world application.


green line

• How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?


Though not actually ‘reducing’ the value of a number, prime factorization is the equivalency of numbers broken down into their smallest parts and then multiplied together. The idea of reducing numbers goes all the way back to elementary school when students are learning about fractions. Subconsciously they use a similar process to prime factorization when reducing fractions to simplest form. When reducing fractions to simplest form, the numerators and denominators themselves may not both necessarily be prime, but when put into simplest form, they are relatively prime. Being able to pick out factors of numbers –another relatively early grade school concept (going back to multiplication and division) — plays a huge deal in both fractions and prime factorization.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.