See You Later! (Quotations XI)

We will be heading out soon on vacation, so I will not be blogging for awhile. The rest of this week is devoted to packing. (I hate packing!) But before I leave, here is a longish quote on teaching math from the book I am reading this week: Ian Stewart’s Letters to a Young Mathematician.

A second reason why few students ever realize that there is mathematics outside the textbook is that no one ever tells them that.

I don’t blame the teachers… If your students are having problems remembering how to solve quadratic equations, the wise teacher will stay well clear of cubic equations, which are even more difficult….

Continue reading See You Later! (Quotations XI)

How To Start a Homeschool Math Club

From a recent e-mail:

“Hello! I am on the board of a homeschool co-op. We have had requests for a math club and wondered if you have any tips for starting one. We service children from K-10th and would need to try to meet the needs of as many ages as possible.”

There are several ways you might organize a homeschool math club, depending on the students you have and on your goals. I think you would have to split the students by age groups — it is very hard to keep that wide of a range of students interested. Then decide whether you want an activity-oriented club or a more academic focus.

When I started my first math club, I raided the math shelves in the children’s section at my library (510-519) for anything that interested me. I figured that if an activity didn’t interest me, I couldn’t make it fun for the kids. Over the years we have done a variety of games, puzzles, craft projects, and more — always looking for something that was NOT like whatever the kids would be doing in their textbooks at home.

Continue reading How To Start a Homeschool Math Club

Solution: The Cat’s Lasagna

The puzzle (from The mysterious temporal freeze) was:

A certain famous cat snarfs down an 11″x13″ pan of lasagna in 3 seconds flat. Assuming the fat feline has a bottomless pit for a stomach and continues to eat at the same rate, how long will it take him to devour a pasta the size of the state of Illinois?

Remember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer soon afterwards. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. Figure it out for yourself — and then check the answer just to prove that you got it right.

Continue reading Solution: The Cat’s Lasagna

The Mysterious Temporal Freeze

Pyramids clip artAlexandria Jones stepped into the huge tent that protected her father’s excavation site from the desert winds. She laughed to herself. It was like walking into a circus.

She knelt down to whisper in the ear of her faithful dog Ramus. “In this ring, grad students carefully brush away another layer of sand. In the next ring, the artist sketches every piece as it is found.” She waved her arm. “And over there, our flashiest attraction — drum roll, please — the photographers shoot each shard of pottery from every possible angle. But where is the Master of Ceremonies?”

Alex and Rammy found Professor Jones near the back of the tent, talking to another student. While she waited for her dad, she looked through an assortment of numbered artifacts that were ready to be packed and sent to the museum.

Continue reading The Mysterious Temporal Freeze

Carnival of Mathematics #10

Carnival of MathematicsTo the Pythagorean mystics, 10 was the Sacred Tetractys, the number of the Universe, “the source and root of eternal nature.” 10 is the fourth triangular number, the sum of the first 4 positive integers:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10

The Carnival of Math: Tenth Edition is up at MathNotations, with most of the posts at the middle-to-secondary school level this time. There are too many interesting topics for me to play favorites. Be sure to check it out!

Quotations X: The Royal Road

More quotations especially for teachers:

There is no Royal Road to Geometry.

Euclid

Teaching is the royal road to learning.

Jessamyn West

The title which I most covet is that of teacher. The writing of a research paper and the teaching of freshman calculus, and everything in between, falls under this rubric. Happy is the person who comes to understand something and then gets to explain it.

Marshall Cohen


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How Old Are You, in Nanoseconds?

Conversion factors are special fractions that contain problem-solving information. Why are they called conversion factors? “Conversion” means change, and conversion factors help you change the numbers and units in your problem. “Factors” are things you multiply with. So to use a conversion factor, you will multiply it by something.

For instance, if I am driving an average of 60 mph on the highway, I can use that rate as a conversion factor. I may use the fraction \frac{60 \: miles}{1 \: hour} , or I may flip it over to make \frac{1 \: hour}{60 \: miles} . It all depends on what problem I want to solve.

After driving two hours, I have traveled:

\left(2 \: hours \right) \times \frac{60 \: miles}{1 \: hour} = 120 miles so far.

But if I am planning to go 240 more miles, and I need to know when I will arrive:

\left(240 \: miles \right) \times \frac{1 \: hour}{60 \: miles} = 4 hours to go.

Any rate can be used as a conversion factor. You can recognize them by their form: this per that. Miles per hour, dollars per gallon, cm per meter, and many, many more.

Of course, you will need to use the rate that is relevant to the problem you are trying to solve. If I were trying to figure out how far a tank of gas would take me, it wouldn’t be any help to know that an M1A1 Abrams tank gets 1/3 mile per gallon. I won’t be driving one of those.

Using Conversion Factors Is Like Multiplying by One

If I am driving 65 mph on the interstate highway, then driving for one hour is exactly the same as driving 65 miles, and:

\frac{65 \: miles}{1 \: hour} = the \: same \: thing \: divided \: by \: itself = 1

This may be easier to see if you think of kitchen measurements. Two cups of sour cream are exactly the same as one pint of sour cream, so:

\frac{2 \: cups}{1 \: pint} = \left(2 \: cups \right) \div \left(1 \:pint \right) = 1

If I want to find out how many cups are in 3 pints of sour cream, I can multiply by the conversion factor:

\left(3 \: pints \right) \times \frac{2 \: cups}{1 \: pint} = 6 \: cups

Multiplying by one does not change the original number. In the same way, multiplying by a conversion factor does not change the original amount of stuff. It only changes the units that you measure the stuff in. When I multiplied 3 pints times the conversion factor, I did not change how much sour cream I had, only the way I was measuring it.

Conversion Factors Can Always Be Flipped Over

If there are \frac{60 \: minutes}{1 \: hour} , then there must also be \frac{1 \: hour}{60 \: minutes} .

If I draw house plans at a scale of \frac{4 \: feet}{1 \: inch} , that is the same as saying \frac{1 \: inch}{4 \: feet} .

If there are \frac{2\: cups}{1 \: pint} , then there is \frac{1\: pint}{2 \: cups} = 0.5 \: \frac{pints}{cup} .

Or if an airplane is burning fuel at \frac{8\: gallons}{1 \: hour} , then the pilot has only 1/8 hour left to fly for every gallon left in his tank.

This is true for all conversion factors, and it is an important part of what makes them so useful in solving problems. You can choose whichever form of the conversion factor seems most helpful in the problem at hand.

How can you know which form will help you solve the problem? Look at the units you have, and think about the units you need to end up with. In the sour cream measurement above, I started with pints and I wanted to end up with cups. That meant I needed a conversion factor with cups on top (so I would end up with that unit) and pints on bottom (to cancel out).

You Can String Conversion Factors Together

String several conversion factors together to solve more complicated problems. Just as numbers cancel out when the same number is on the top and bottom of a fraction (2/2 = 2 ÷ 2 = 1), so do units cancel out if you have the same unit in the numerator and denominator. In the following example, quarts/quarts = 1.

How many cups of milk are there in a gallon jug?

\left(1\: gallon \right) \times \frac{4\: quarts}{1\: gallon} \times \frac{2\: pints}{1\: quart} \times \frac{2\: cups}{1\: pint} = 16\: cups

As you write out your string of factors, you will want to draw a line through each unit as it cancels out, and then whatever is left will be the units of your answer. Notice that only the units cancel — not the numbers. Even after I canceled out the quarts, the 4 was still part of my calculation.

Let’s Try One More

The true power of conversion factors is their ability to change one piece of information into something that at first glance seems to be unrelated to the number with which you started.

Suppose I drove for 45 minutes at 55 mph in a pickup truck that gets 18 miles to the gallon, and I wanted to know how much gas I used. To find out, I start with a plain number that I know (in this case, the 45 miles) and use conversion factors to cancel out units until I get the units I want for my answer (gallons of gas). How can I change minutes into gallons? I need a string of conversion factors:

\left(45\: min. \right) \times \frac{1\: hour}{60\: min.} \times \frac{55\: miles}{1\: hour} \times \frac{1\: gallon}{18\: miles} = 2.3\: gallons

How Old Are You, Anyway?

If you want to find your exact age in nanoseconds, you need to know the exact moment at which you were born. But for a rough estimate, just knowing your birthday will do. First, find out how many days you have lived:

Days\: I\:have\: lived = \left(my\: age \right) \times \frac{365\: days}{year}

+ \left(number\: of\: leap\: years \right) \times \frac{1\: extra\: day}{leap\: year}

+ \left(days\: since\: my\: last\: birthday,\: inclusive \right)

Once you know how many days you have lived, you can use conversion factors to find out how many nanoseconds that would be. You know how many hours are in a day, minutes in an hour, and seconds in a minute. And just in case you weren’t quite sure:

One\: nanosecond = \frac{1}{1,000,000,000} \: of\: a\: second

Have fun playing around with conversion factors. You will be surprised how many problems these mathematical wonders can solve.


[Note: This article is adapted from my out-of-print book, Master the Math Monsters.]


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Fun Carnivals for Teachers

Put some fun in your homeschool this week with the Carnival of Homeschooling. Kris has collected an eclectic list of posts for you to browse—there is sure to be something for every member of the family [blog has disappeared].

And submissions are due tonight for the Carnival of Education, which will be up Wednesday at The Education Wonks. I will post a more specific link when I get it.

Edited to add: The Carnival of Education is now up. Darren had an interesting post:

Math Texts, Then and Now


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