Engaging students: Solving one-step algebra problems

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 again comes from my former student Alizee Garcia. Her topic, from Algebra: solving one-step algebra problems.

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

As stated in the topic, one-step algebra problems can also lead up to two-step, three-step, and so on and so forth. Being said, as students’ move on to future courses, the knowledge they have over one-step problems is what will get them through more complex equations. Throughout algebra courses, the basis of problems will be to solve an unknown variable. Without the understanding of the base of algebra, things will not be smooth. Also, solving one-step algebra problems will help students’ even in science classes. For example, chemistry classes contain a lot of variables and unknowns and it is up to the student to solve for them. The amount of solution a student has to put into another solution may need to be figured out by a simple one-step algebra problem and without this knowledge, it can lead to a ruined lab or maybe even an explosion. Solving one-step problems and understanding how to will help students tremendously from the time they learn it to the end of time.

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

When solving any algebra problem, or solving for an unknown, it allows students to incorporate order of operations. As for just one-step algebra problems, it gives students the opportunity to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It also gives them to opportunity to practice setting up an equation when solving for the unknown. There are many things that one-step algebra problems extends for students but as they have more practice, they should not have to think about it much. Furthermore, when solving algebra problems one of the most important things is doing the same application on both sides of the equality. Sometimes students may have done one-step algebra problems in the past but have not set it up in an equation. This also will extend the topic of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Although the students may already have a lot of experience with those applications, it gives them more practice to decide what application to use when solving a one-step algebra problem.

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How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?      

Recently, I have discovered that when appropriate, using websites such as Quizziz, Kahoot, and online games as such helps students engage in the topic. Especially for one-step algebra problems that can be done mentally or quickly on paper, it lets students become more active in the lesson. Students will want to be their peers high score and get the questions right. Using such technology will enable students to have more practice and wanting to do it correctly as well. Making topics a friendly competition for students will make things more exciting for them. Also, these website will allow for an untimed quiz so they do not feel rush and are able to accurately solve problems. Although this can be tricky for some math topics, with simpler things such as one-step algebra problems, it definitely will be a very good opportunity for students to learn material and have fun with it as well.

Predicate Logic and Popular Culture (Part 207): Patrick Rothfuss

Let p be the statement “You tell a story the right way,” and let q be the statement “You are a bit of a liar.” Translate the logical statement

p \Rightarrow q.

This matches a line from the novel “Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss: “You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.” https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/155428-you-have-to-be-a-bit-of-a-liar-to

Context: Part of the discrete mathematics course includes an introduction to predicate and propositional logic for our math majors. As you can probably guess from their names, students tend to think these concepts are dry and uninteresting even though they’re very important for their development as math majors.

In an effort to making these topics more appealing, I spent a few days mining the depths of popular culture in a (likely futile) attempt to make these ideas more interesting to my students. In this series, I’d like to share what I found. Naturally, the sources that I found have varying levels of complexity, which is appropriate for students who are first learning prepositional and predicate logic.

When I actually presented these in class, I either presented the logical statement and had my class guess the statement in actual English, or I gave my students the famous quote and them translate it into predicate logic. However, for the purposes of this series, I’ll just present the statement in predicate logic first.

Adding by a Form of 0: Index

I’m doing something that I should have done a long time ago: collecting a series of posts into one single post. The following links comprised my series on adding by a form of 0 (analogous to multiplying by a form of 1).

Part 1: Introduction.

Part 2: The Product and Quotient Rules from calculus.

Part 3: A formal mathematical proof from discrete mathematics regarding equality of sets.

Part 4: Further thoughts on adding by a form of 0 in the above proof.

My Favorite One-Liners: Part 122

Once in my probability class, a student asked a reasonable question — could I intuitively explain the difference between “uncorrelated” and “independent”? This is a very subtle question, as there are non-intuitive examples of random variables that are uncorrelated but are nevertheless dependent. For example, if X is a random variable uniformly distributed on \{-1,0,1\} and Y= X^2, then it’s straightforward to show that E(X) = 0 and E(XY) = E(X^3) = E(X) = 0, so that

\hbox{Cov}(X,Y) = E(XY) - E(X) E(Y) = 0

and hence X and Y are uncorrelated.

However, in most practical examples that come up in real life, “uncorrelated” and “independent” are synonymous, including the important special case of a bivariate normal distribution.

This was my expert answer to my student: it’s like the difference between “mostly dead” and “all dead.”

My Favorite One-Liners: Part 121

I’ll use this one-liner when I ask my students to do something that’s a little conventional but nevertheless within their grasp. For example, consider the following calculation using a half-angle trigonometric identity:

\cos \displaystyle \frac{5\pi}{8} = \cos \displaystyle \left( \frac{1}{2} \cdot \frac{5\pi}{4} \right)

= \displaystyle - \sqrt{ \frac{1 + \cos 5\pi/4}{2} }

= \displaystyle - \sqrt{ \frac{ 1 - \displaystyle \frac{\sqrt{2}}{2}}{2} }

= \displaystyle - \sqrt{ \frac{ ~~~ \displaystyle \frac{2-\sqrt{2}}{2} ~~~}{2} }

= \displaystyle - \sqrt{ \frac{2 - \sqrt{2}}{4}}

= \displaystyle - \frac{ \sqrt{2 - \sqrt{2}}}{\sqrt{4}}

= \displaystyle - \frac{ \sqrt{2 - \sqrt{2}}}{2}

That’s certainly a very complicated calculation, with plenty of predictable places where a student might make an inadvertent mistake.

In my experience, one somewhat surprising place that can trip up students seeing such a calculation for the first time is the very first step: changing \displaystyle \frac{5\pi}{8} into \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} \cdot \frac{5\pi}{4}. Upon reflection, perhaps this isn’t so surprising: students are very accustomed to taking a complicated expression like \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} \cdot \frac{5\pi}{4} and making it simpler. However, they aren’t often asked to take a simple expression like \displaystyle \frac{5\pi}{8} and make it more complicated.

So I try to make this explicitly clear to my students. A lot of times, we want to make a complicated expression simple. Sometimes, we have to go the other direction and make a simple expression more complicated. Students should be able to do both. And, to try to make this memorable for my students, I use my one-liner:

“In the words of the great philosopher, you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”

Yes, that’s an old song reference. My experience is that most students have heard the line before but unfortunately can’t identify the singer: the late, great Kenny Rogers.

Factorization of 2021

A line joining two infinitely small points

Been there, done that.

Source: Math With Bad Drawings, https://www.facebook.com/MathWithBadDrawings/photos/a.822582787758549/3862434577106673/

Usefulness of Mathematical Symbols in a Fight

Source: https://xkcd.com/2343/

Xmas Tree, Ymas Tree, Zmas Tree

I’m not gonna lie… I wish I had an ugly Christmas sweater with this theme.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10157861645601449&set=a.115338471448&type=3&theater

Is 8,675,309 prime?

This semester, to remind today’s college students of the greatness of the 1980s: I made my class answer the following question on an exam:

Jenny wants to find out if 8,675,309 is prime. In a few sentences, describe an efficient procedure she could use to answer this question.

Amazingly, it turns out that 8,675,309 is a prime number, though I seriously doubt that Tommy Tutone had this fact in mind when he wrote the classic 80s song. To my great disappointment, nobody noticed (or at least admitted to noticing) the cultural significance of this number on the exam.

Naturally, I didn’t expect my students to actually determine this on a timed exam, and I put the following elaboration on the exam:

Although Jenny has a calculator, answering this question would take more than 80 minutes. So don’t try to find out if it’s prime or not! Instead, describe a procedure for answering the question and provide enough details so that Jenny could follow your directions. Since Jenny will need a lot of time, your procedure should be efficient, or as quick as possible (even if it takes hours).

Your answer should include directions for making a certain large list of prime numbers. Be sure to describe the boundaries of this list and how this list can be made efficiently. Hint: We described an algorithm for making such lists of prime numbers in class. (Again, do not actually construct this list.)

I thought it was reasonable to expect them to describe a process for making this determination on a timed exam.  Cultural allusions aside, I thought this was a good way of checking that they conceptually understood certain facts about prime numbers that we had discussed in class:

  • First, to check if 8,675,309 is prime, it suffices to check if any of positive prime numbers less than or equal to \sqrt{8,675,309} \approx 2,945.387\dots are factors of 8,675,309.
  • To make this list of prime numbers, the sieve of Eratosthenes can be employed. Notice that \sqrt{2,945} \approx 54.271\dots, and the largest prime number less than this number is 53. Therefore, to make this list of prime numbers, one could write down the numbers between 2 and 2,945 and then eliminate the nontrivial multiples of the prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, \dots 53.
  • If none of the resulting prime numbers are factors of 8,675,309, then we can conclude that 8,675,309 is prime.

I was happy that most of my class got this answer either entirely correct or mostly correct… and I was also glad that nobody suggested the efficient one-sentence procedure “Google Is 8,675,309 prime?.”