With the school year over, I’ve had time to pursue other math related activities. I’ve been reading through the book Joy of SET by Liz McMahon and others. It describes the “many mathematical dimensions of a seemingly simple card game” and was recommended to me a few months ago.
There were a few chapters on various probabilities, like the probability of finding 1 set out of 4 randomly chosen cards. I enjoy writing python programs that can confirm calculated probabilities by running a simulation several thousands of times.
My program will step through a game of SET, dealing 12 cards, finding SETs and removing them from the table, and dealing more cards so that there are 12 cards on the table again. If there are no SETs in the dozen cards, then it deals 3 more.
I also wrote a function that will find the probability of finding n SETs when one randomly deals x cards, allowing the user to choose how many times to run the simulation. I find that 10,000 repetitions is about adequate.
Check out my SET program here. It’s still a work in progress. I’m now deciding whether to calculate the expected value of the number of SETs in a dozen cards, which will mean rewriting some of my methods.
Here’s a hack: if you forget anything in python you can just google it for a refresher. For example, I couldn’t remember how to set argument defaults for my functions, so I googled: “python function set default arguments.”
Summertime is a great time for students to follow rabbit holes and exercise python skills.
Indeed the alternating sum of digits proof for multiples of eleven is fun.
A student and I were slaying a tricky geometry problem from an old AMC. She hadn’t taken geometry yet, but she had excellent insights, and we were making good progress. We were close to the end and we needed to simplify
is a multiple of a square (
), and since the square root of a product is the product of the square roots, we can rewrite
But she couldn’t do it. I thought maybe she hadn’t learn how to simplify square roots, but she admitted she had learned them, but hadn’t solved a square root problem for a long time and was out of practice. Fair enough.
As a student progresses through a math curriculum over the years, they are gradually adding tools to their problem solving tool box. Simplifying square roots is another tool. The textbook teaches you how to use it, you practice using it on a bunch of squares, then you throw into your tool box for some unspecified time when you will need it later. Then they go on to learn another tool. And another tool.
The trouble is, like my student, you can forget how to use your tools if you don’t practice.
That’s another reason why practicing math contests can be so helpful in keeping those skills fresh. Math contests typically have all kinds of problems: geometry, probability, number theory, and yes solving square roots. Sometimes, like in that geometry problem, you need to deploy several of your tools to arrive at a solution.
I was working through this year’s MathCounts State Level exam, and found 2 problems involving factorials. Your reflex when seeing a factorial problem is to see how you can factor the expression. For example we are asked to find the value of this expression:
Notice that the 2 terms in the numerator are both products of and the 2 terms in the denominator are both products of . So we can factor these both out:
If you notice that and both have a factor of then the fraction is much easier to evaluate.
Another problem on the same exam asks us to solve for :
Again you can factor from the 2 terms on the left hand side:
To finish out this problem we can find the prime factorization of and match that up to the product of consecutive integers.
I was tutoring a student who is using the AoPS Prealgebra textbook, and we were learning how to solve linear equations with one variable (p. 215). This is the sort of problem that looks like this:
My student understood that in order to solve the equation we first need to combine like terms and isolate the variable, which he successfully did:
My student also understood that we need our variable
to have a coefficient of
so that we get something that looks like
But how to turn
It turned out he had a lot of interesting ideas. “How about we subtract
from both sides?” he suggested.
Those of you well-versed in algebraic manipulations can foretell that this will lead you farther away from a solution. But rather than cut him off and tell him this is wrong, I went along with it.
“Okay, let’s give it a try and see what happens. Subtracting
from both sides…”
Well, that didn’t work. It turned out my student had many, many creative approaches to isolating n and solving this problem, none of which got us closer to actually solving the problem. But rather than cutting him off and prematurely telling him he was wrong, I went along with the playful exploration. This approach of “try it and see if it works” experimentation is something we want to cultivate in our students, not just in math, but in many academic fields. Eventually he remembered that we could divide both sides by 11 to solve the problem. While this sort of discovery approach can be inefficient and tedious, it’s fun to pop into a rabbit hole occasionally.
My hope is that in the future, if he sees another problem like this, he won’t panic, but will instead try to reason it out, just as he did when he learned it for the first time.