The Gerrymander Math Project

With a big election on the horizon, now is a great time to talk about the math of politics.

Does “One person, one vote” make a fair democracy?

Or does it give the majority license to trample a minority?

How can planners arrange voting districts to give everyone the best representation? And is that really what politicians would do, if they had the choice?

Try the Gerrymander Project with your students to investigate these questions and spark real-world mathematical discussion.

First, Create a Map

[Or buy a copy of my printable activity guide, The Gerrymander Project: Math in the World of Politics, which includes a prepared city map with more detailed instructions, answers, and journaling prompts. My publisher has extended the 10% discount code TBLTOP10 through to Election Day, 3 November 2020.]

  • Print a blank hundred chart or outline a 10×10 square on grid paper. This represents your city. Give it a name.
  • Pull out your colored pencils. Choose one color for your city’s Majority Party and another for the Minority Party.
  • Color 10 squares in a neutral color for non-voting areas. These might be malls or parks or the downtown business district — your choice.
  • Color the remaining 90 blocks in a random distribution so that 60% are the Majority color and 40% the Minority. How will you choose which squares to make which colors? Can you think of a way to use dice or playing cards to make your choices random, yet still get the right proportion?

Slip your finished map into a clear page protector, so you can mark on it with dry-erase markers. Or make several copies, so you can write on them without destroying the original.

Then Gerrymander Your City

“Gerrymandering” is the American political tradition of adjusting the voting district boundaries to favor one’s own party at the expense of one’s opponents.

The city has hired you to mark out 10 new voting districts of 9 squares each (not counting the neutral squares, which can go in any district). The squares in each district must touch side-to-side, not just meet at a corner.

So now you get to play “political hack.”

First, see how fair you can make the map:

  • What happens if you ignore the party colors and make your districts as compact as possible, so the people living nearest to each other vote together? Will the Majority Party always win?
  • Can you give all your voters a proportional representation? Both parties should win the number of districts that most closely matches their percentage of the voting population.

Next, try your hand at gerrymandering, but make sure all the squares in each district stay connected. Can you create ten voting districts that will guarantee:

  • A come-from-behind triumph for the Minority Party? They need to carry at least six districts to wrest control of the City Council from their opponents.
  • The greatest possible margin of victory for the Majority Party? Can you keep the Minority from winning any districts at all?

Share Your Thoughts

I’d love to hear your students’ reaction to this project. Please share in the comments section below.

For myself, the more I play with this project, the more I admire the work done by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Our Electoral College divides the country into “districts” based on state boundaries, giving each a vote roughly proportional to its population — but in a way that slightly strengthens the Minority Party. The system may not be perfect, but it’s done an amazing job through the centuries of maintaining a balance of power, making sure that neither major political party can destroy the other.

Kenken is Mathematical Play

It’s back-to-school time here in the States. And that means it’s time for the Kenken Classroom Newsletter. Yay for math puzzles!

KenKen arithmetic puzzles build mental math skills, logical reasoning, persistence, and mathematical confidence.

Free via email every Friday during the school year.

What a great way to prepare your children for success in math!

Sign up anytime:

Click Here for KenKen Classroom Newsletter

Continue reading Kenken is Mathematical Play

2020 Mathematics Game — Join the Fun!

New Year’s Day

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.

Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time.

However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

— Mark Twain
Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Jan. 1863
quoted in Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1: 1851-1864 (affiliate link)

If you’d like to enjoy a mathematical New Year’s Resolution, may I recommend Evelyn Lamb’s Math Reading Challenge? I haven’t decided if I’m going to follow along, but it does look like fun.

Meanwhile, I do resolve to challenge myself with more math puzzles this year. Would you like to join me?

Here’s a great way to start: with the 2020 Mathematics Game!

Click here to continue reading.

Math That Is Beautiful

One of the sections in my book Let’s Play Math: How Families Can Learn Math Together — and Enjoy It encourages parents to make beautiful math with their children.

Do you have trouble believing that math can be beautiful?

In “Inspirations,” artist Cristóbal Vila creates a wonderful, imaginary work studio for the amazing M.C. Escher. You’ll want to view it in full-screen mode.

How many mathematical objects could you identify?

Vila offers a brief explanation of the history and significance of each item on his page Inspirations: A short movie inspired on Escher’s works.

Read about the inspirations, and then try making some math of your own.

“I looked into that enormous and inexhaustible source of inspiration that is Escher and tried to imagine how it could be his workplace, what things would surround an artist like him, so deeply interested in science in general and mathematics in particular. I imagined that these things could be his travel souvenirs, gifts from friends, sources of inspiration…”

—Cristóbal Vila
Inspirations: A short movie inspired on Escher’s works

Playful Math Education Carnival 130

Play. Learn. Enjoy!

Welcome to the 130th edition of the Playful Math Education Blog Carnival, a feast of delectable tidbits of mathy fun.

The Playful Math Carnival is like a free online magazine devoted to learning, teaching, and playing around with math. It’s back-to-school time in the U.S., so this month’s edition focuses on establishing a creative math mindset from preschool to high school.

You’re sure to find something that will delight both you and your child.

By tradition, we start the carnival with a puzzle in honor of our 130th edition. But if you would like to jump straight to our featured blog posts, use our handy Table of Contents.

Click here for all the mathy goodness!

2019 Mathematics Game: Playful Math for All Ages

Happy 2019! Have you set any goals for the year?

My goals are to continue playing with math (1) in my homeschool coop classes and (2) on this blog — and (3) hopefully to publish a couple of new books as well.

My favorite way to celebrate any new year is by playing the Year Game. It’s a prime opportunity for players of all ages to fulfill the two most popular New Year’s Resolutions: spending more time with family and friends, and getting more exercise.

So grab a partner, slip into your workout clothes, and pump up those mental muscles!

Rules of the Game

Use the digits in the year 2019 to write mathematical expressions for the counting numbers 1 through 100. The goal is adjustable: Young children can start with looking for 1-10, middle grades with 1-25.

  • You must use all four digits. You may not use any other numbers.
  • Solutions that keep the year digits in 2-0-1-9 order are preferred, but not required.
  • You may use a decimal point to create numbers such as .2, .02, etc., but you cannot write 0.02 because we only have one zero in this year’s number.
  • You may create multi-digit numbers such as 10 or 201 or .01, but we prefer solutions that avoid them.

My Special Variations on the Rules

  • You MAY use the overhead-bar (vinculum), dots, or brackets to mark a repeating decimal. But students and teachers beware: you can’t submit answers with repeating decimals to Math Forum.
  • You may NOT use a double factorial, n!! = the product of all integers from 1 to n that have the same parity (odd or even) as n. The Math Forum allows them, but I feel much more creative when I can wrangle a solution without invoking them.

For many years mathematicians, scientists, engineers and others interested in mathematics have played “year games” via e-mail and in newsgroups. We don’t always know whether it is possible to write expressions for all the numbers from 1 to 100 using only the digits in the current year, but it is fun to try to see how many you can find.

Math Forum Year Game Site

Click here to continue reading.

A Beautiful Puzzle

This lovely puzzle (for upper-elementary and beyond) is from Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s 1895 painting “Mental Calculation. In Public School of S. A. Rachinsky.” Pat Ballew posted it on his blog On This Day in Math, in honor of the 365th day of the year.

I love the expressions on the boys’ faces. So many different ways to manifest hard thinking!

Here’s the question:

No calculator allowed. But you can talk it over with a friend, as the boys on the right are doing.

You can even use scratch paper, if you like.

Thinking About Square Numbers

And if you’d like a hint, you can figure out square numbers using this trick. Think of a square number made from rows of pennies.

Can you see how to make the next-bigger square?

Any square number, plus one more row and one more column, plus a penny for the corner, makes the next-bigger square.

So if you know that ten squared is one hundred, then:

… and so onward to your answer. If the Russian schoolboys could figure it out, then you can, too!


Simon Gregg (@Simon_Gregg) added this wonderful related puzzle for the new year:

There Ain’t No Free Candy

Ah, the infinite chocolate bar. If only it could work in real life! But can your children find the mistake? Where does the extra chocolate come from?

Here’s a hint: It’s related to this classic brainteaser. And here’s a video from Christopher Danielson (, showing how the chocolate bar dissection really works.

Happy munchings!

CREDITS: Feature photo (top) by Yoori Koo via Unsplash. “Hershey Bar Math” video by Christopher Danielson via YouTube. The infinite chocolate gif went viral long ago, and I have no idea who was the original artist.

Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers.

confessionPeople assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement.

The conclusion simply isn’t valid.

Continue reading Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

A New Graph-It Puzzle

Since I’ve been posting new Alexandria Jones stories this week (beginning here), I’ve gone back and re-read the old Christmas posts. I noticed that the original Graph-It Game included a religious design, but nothing for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

So I updated the post with a new, non-religious puzzle. Here it is, if you want to play…

Graph-It Game Design

For this design, you will need graph paper with coordinates from −8 to +8 on both the x- and y-axis. Connect the points in each line. Stop at the periods, and then start a new line at the next point.

(-8,8) – (-8,0) – (0,8) – (-8,8) – (-4,4) – (0,4) – (0,8) – (8,8) – (4,4) – (0,8).

(8,8) – (8,0) – (4,0) – (4,-4) – (8,0) – (8,-8) – (0,-8) – (4,-4) – (0,-4) – (0,-8) – (-8,0) – (-8, -8) – (0,-8).

(-8,-8) – (4,4) – (0,4) – (4,0) – (4,4) – (8,0).

(8,-8) – (-4,4) – (-4,-4) – (0,-4) – (-4,0) – (-8,0).

(0,-2) – (0,-4) – (4,0) – (2,0) – (2,-2) – (-2,-2) – (-2,2) – (2,2) – (2,0) – (1,1) – (1,0) – (2,0) – (0,-2) – (-2,0) – (0,2) – (1,1) – (-1,1) – (-1,-1) – (1,-1) – (1,0) – (-4,0) – (0,4) – (0,-1) – (-1,0) – (0,1) – (1,0) – (0,-1) – (0,-2).

Color in your design and hang it up for the whole family to enjoy!

Now Make Your Own

Of course, the fun of the Graph-It Game is to make up your own graphing puzzle. Can you create a coordinate design for your friends to draw?

Want More?

You can see all the Alexandria Jones Christmas posts at a glance here:

CREDITS: “Love Christmas Lights” photo by Kristen Brasil via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).