Brian Bolt has written numerous resource books for teachers containing collections of rich mathematical problems, puzzles, investigations and games. Some are descriptions of classic problems and puzzles while others are new creations. I think these books are a great resource and I wanted to share three of my favourite problems from them. Number the Sectors
This is problem #53 from Even More Mathematical Activities (1987) and problem #72 from The Mathematical Funfair (1989). Instead of starting by asking students to find a set of numbers that gives all the integers from 1 to 25, I like to create an example as a class and then challenge them to do better (get to a larger number). You can also ask them to prove what the maximum value is. Bolt has an alternate version of this puzzle in A Mathematical Pandora's Box (1993) (#12 Can you Do Better), which has 5 sectors around a central circle. This version can be found is online at NRICH Maths as the Number Daisy. How Large a Number Can You Make?Make the largest number with just the digits 1, 2, and 3 once only and any mathematical symbols you are aware of, but no symbol is to be used more than once. The challenge is to see who can make the largest number. Here are some numbers to get the ball rolling: This is problem #83 from Even More Mathematical Activities, (1987). I've given this as a warmup problem for high school students and this often leads to a discussion of how to know which is bigger, 2^31 or 3^21? Make a CenturyBy putting arithmetical signs in suitable places between the digits make the following sum correct: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 = 100 There is more than one solution. See how many you can find. This is problem #127 from Mathematical Activities (1982). I would start this challenge with students by asking them to make an expression using the numbers from 1 to 9 to make a value as close as possible to 100. I would then add on the challenge to try to find an expression exactly equal to 100. There is a very similar problem called Make 100 on NRICH Maths. I saw an earlier version of this as problem #94 in Amusements in Mathematics (1917) by Henry Ernest Dudeney. In Dudeney's version, he includes an additional challenge to try to find a solution which "employs (1) the fewest possible signs, and (2) the fewest possible separate strokes or dots of the pen. That is, it is necessary to use as few signs as possible, and those signs should be of the simplest form. The signs of addition and multiplication (+ and ×) will thus count as two strokes, the sign of subtraction () as one stroke, the sign of division (÷) as three, and so on." What are Your Favourite Problems?Do you have a favourite problem or puzzle from one of Brian Bolt's puzzle books? Do you have other favourite collections of puzzles? EL
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During a professional development session today with grade primary to grade 9 math coaches and support teachers, we spent some time working on solving some math puzzles. We used our work on these puzzles to reflect on what good group work looks and sounds like. We also discussed the characteristics of effective mathematical communication. It was great to see positive energy and teachers supporting and encouraging each other. Below are the five math puzzles and investigations that we worked on. We selected these puzzles because they are easy to explain, open to a wide range of students, and offered a fun challenge. 110 Card InvestigationThis problem from Marilyn Burns asks you to find a special order for a stack of cards, Ace through 10. Place the stack of cards face down and turn over the first card. It should be the Ace. Place the next card on the bottom of the deck and then reveal the top card. It should be the number 2. Continue placing the next card on the bottom of the deck and then revealing the top card until all the cards are revealed. The face up cards should now be in order from Ace to 10. Marilyn recorded a video to demonstrate these rules that is much easier to understand than my written instructions. Marilyn's has a description of this problem on the MathSolutions website. This logic problem doesn't rely on any prerequisite mathematical knowledge and you can try it out quickly to see if you've come up with the correct solution. It gives students a chance to work together to try out strategies. The SquareSum ProblemCan you order all the numbers from 1 through 15 so that the sum of any two consecutive numbers are always a square number? For example, in the sequence: 4, 5, 11; 4+5=9 and 5+11=16.I really like this problem because there are some great extensions to take this problem farther and there is a very nice way to visualize the possible solutions. Numberphile has recorded a great video demonstrating both the problem and solution. The Year Game  2018Use the digits in the year 2018 to write mathematical expressions for the counting numbers 1 through 100 (we only went to 20). Use any math operations (+, , x, ÷, etc) and parentheses to write these expression. There is a more detailed description of this problem at the Math Forum website. For example, expressions for the number 1 might be: 10 ÷ (2+8) or 218^0. This problem is very similar to the classic Four Fours problem but with new digits each year. Which numbers are the hardest to find an expression for? Why do you think this is? I think this problem also leads nicely to a discussion about mathematical elegance and beauty. Look at a variety of expressions with the same value. Which expression do you think is the best? What makes for an "elegant" solution? Perimeter 12This problem challenged groups to make as many different shapes as possible with a perimeter of 12 units using a geoboard (or dot paper). Shapes were recorded on dot paper to make sure no shapes were repeated as reflections or rotations. I've seen variations of this problem in several places. One of them is Brian Bolt's book Mathematical Activities (1982). He suggests not only to find shapes with a perimeter of 12 but to also find the area of each shape. You can then find which shape has the maximum/minimum area. He also challenges students to find nonrectangular shapes (e.g. triangles) with a perimeter of 12 units. There were some good discussions about the lengths of diagonal line segments on the geoboard. Eight DominoesThis problem is from NRICH. Finding a solution took some perseverance but most groups were eventually successful. The problem challenges you to create a square using 8 specific dominoes (01, 02, 03, 06, 12, 14, 22, and 35). In the 4 x 4 square, each of the columns and rows should sum to 8. The 35 domino seemed to be key as the rest of the squares in that row (or column) had to be blank. What are your favourite math or logic puzzles? EL
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Nation Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Annual Meeting and Exhibition in Washington, DC. This was my first big math conference. I attended some great presentations. One message that I heard reiterated in a number of presentations and one that resonated with me was about rich tasks. The message was that having a rich task is only a starting point for effective mathematics instruction. A rich task in math class is like being dealt a great hand of cards in Poker. It makes winning easier but it still takes a seasoned player with solid understanding of the complexities of the game to win a big pot. Full Stack LessonsDan Meyer presented a session called "Why Good Activities Go Bad" in which he discussed a math task called Barbie Bungee. After giving summary of the task he interviewed three different teachers on their use of the task and their students' experiences. Dan asked us to think about what makes a task engaging and productive and what might make it fall flat. He talked about "full stack" lessons and how the mathematical task itself is just one component of a fully developed and presented lesson. Engaging StudentsSara VanDerWerf, in her presentation ‘Engaging Students in Seeing Structure’, talked about her overarching goals when lesson planning. Using routines such as Notice and Wonder and Stand and Talks, Sara supports her students to see and talk about math concepts before they are formalized. Students have a chance to engage in the mathematics and build conceptual understanding. These types of routines which allow students to be curious about math and ask questions are important elements for getting the most out of a rich math task. Super (Secret) Mathematics of Game ShowsOne of the most engaging sessions that I went to at NCTM was presented by Bowen Kerins. He had a fun presentation called Super (Secret) Mathematics of Game Shows. A few elements of his presentation that stand out:
Rich ConversationsShortly after returning from NCTM, I saw these tweets above from Fawn Nguyen and from Cathy Marks Krpan. These thoughts sound like they reflect many of the messages that I heard in Washington, DC this year. This morning, I also saw John Rowe's blog post "The Secret Sauce of Great Lessons." It looks like he attended several of the same sessions that I did and had a similar reflection. My Lesson Planning ChallengeOne the first slide of my presentations, down in the notes, I often write, "The essential components of a presentation: a clear focal point, a strong flow and structure, a beautiful design and a compelling delivery." (I picked this quote up here). It serves as a reminder to stay focused and think about the structure of my presentation (or blog post for that matter). I need to create a similar reminder for planning lessons to focus on more than the task itself. I need to consider how that task will be implemented to make it as engaging and productive for students as possible. EL
Mathematics can be a nuanced subject. Subtle differences in the context or wording of a problem can lead to drastic differences in complexity. I find this especially true with the topic of combinatorics. I remember the first time I taught a course including counting with combinations and permutations. I created a worksheet for my students with what I thought were some fairly straight forward questions. It turns out that some of the problems I created were much more complicated to solve correctly than I had intended. I learned from this mistake and was much more careful from then on. My son and I were recently playing with a roll of tickets (a great math manipulative as it turns out). This led to some questions that appeared similar but were quite different in complexity. I took the pictures below and posted them to twitter. Sharing CandyThe answer to the question on the right can be calculated with a single combination. You can use the "stars and bars" approach to think about the calculation required. First you have to decide if everyone gets a candy or not. If everyone gets at least one candy, then you can think of the problem as putting the twelve candies in a row (the "stars") and inserting 3 dividers in between them (the "bars") to divide the row into four sections. As an example, {★★★★★★★★★★★★} would be one solution. Mathematically, there are 12 identical objects placed in 4 distinct bins, such that all bins contain at least one object. Given the 11 spaces between candies, how many ways are there to choose three of these spaces to place dividers. For the same situation, if you allow each person to receive zero candies, there are more possibilities. Using the same "stars and bars" approach, you can think of all twelve candies and the three dividers and being placed in a row. How many ways are there to do this? There are a total of 12+3 spaces and either a candy or divider is placed into each one. As an example, {★★★★★★★★★★★★} would be one solution. Ripping TicketsThe answer to the question on the left regarding tearing tickets is actually a much more complicated question than the one on the right despite appearing very similar. In this question, we are separating identical objects into identical bins. This means that {★★★★★★★★★★★★} is the same solution as {★★★★★★★★★★★★} since they are both three groups of 2 and one group of 6. This type of problem involves partition numbers and they have been studied by mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler, Srinivasa Ramanujan and more recently Ken Ono. Partition numbers are an open area of mathematics research. The solution for this problem is closely related to partition numbers. For every natural number n, its partition number, p(n), is defined as the number of ways we can write it as a sum of positive integers. For example, since the number 3 can be written as three different unique sums (1+1+1, 1+2 or 3), we say that p(3)=3. If we were looking for the total number of ways to partition the twelve tickets into any number of groups, our answer would be p(12) = 77 (from OEIS A000041). In our problem above however, we're looking for the number of ways to partition 12 into exactly 4 positive integers. We can do this either by counting with an organized list (brute force) or using recursion. For a description of the recursion method, see https://brilliant.org/wiki/identicalobjectsintoidenticalbins/.
Exploring Problem StructuresI recently tried out some problem sets from Craig Barton's SSDD problem website. SSDD stands for Same Surface, Different Deep Structure math problems. These are a set of problems (typically four) that have a very similar context but different solution strategies. The intent is for students to focus on determining the structure of each question and then to identify the corresponding strategy needed to solve it. I think this is an interesting routine for mathematics outcomes where there are a large variety of similar structures (like solving quadratics word problems or combinatorics problems). Michael Pershan wrote a blog post reflecting on the SSDD problem structure and how it might cause students to think in different ways. This type of reflection is why I write this blog and read other teachers blogs. Michael continued the conversation on Twitter and suggested that SSDD problems, “vary the deep differences while keeping the surface the same, and you draw attention to the way minor differences trigger different structure” I think that the type of Same and Different question prompt that I wrote about above also generates the same type of student thinking about the solution strategies required to solve a problem. I think that the SSDD structure could lead to a variety of similar question routines. For example, you could give students variety of questions but instead of answering them, they could be asked to group the questions together that share a similar solution strategy. Or perhaps, you could give students a general context and ask them to create several different questions from this context connected to a variety of mathematics topics (similar to a Notice and Wonder strategy). I think it is exciting to have so much collaboration and thoughtful conversation online between mathematics educators. Nova Scotia Mathematics Curriculum Outcomes Mathematics 12 P05  Solve problems that involve permutations. Mathematics 12 P06  Solve problems that involve combinations. EL
An engaging puzzle with simple instructions is to ask students to create a rectangle using pentomino pieces. Let them figure out what rectangle dimensions are possible given the total number of squares in the pentominoes they're using (for a full set of 12 pentominoes, 3x20, 4x15, 5x12 and 6x10 are possible). You can also print off a variety of other shapes and challenge students to fill those shapes with pentominoes or have students create their own shapes and challenge their friends to solve them. Younger students can be challenged to fill an empty picture frame or tray with pentominoes. Here are five great games, puzzles and activities (in no particular order) that use pentominoes:
2. Pentomino Puzzles from Jon Orr (@MrOrr_geek)  Jon describes an activity where students are given a hundreds chart and a transparent pentomino. Ask students to place their pentomino on the hundreds chart so that it covers a sum of 135. Then ask students to share their strategies for finding the correct placement. Are there sums that are not possible to achieve? Continue the activity by selecting different tiles, giving different sums to find, creating equations and solving them. I also saw these questions posted by Amie Albrecht (@nomad_penguin) on twitter, "Can you find a pentomino that covers numbers that: sum to 150, sum to an even number, covers three multiples of 4, and more". Jon created an online Desmos Activity that allows you to do this activity virtually. 3. Pentomino Farms  I was introduced the the pentomino farms activity from Martin Gardener's book Knotted Doughnuts and Other Mathematical Entertainments. The task is to use the 12 pentominoes to build a fence around a field on your farm. The rule used to join the pentominoes to form a fence is that they must touch along the full edge of a square and not just at the corners. There are four types of farms to create. For each type, what's the largest field you can enclose?
4. How Convex is a Pentomino?  Which pentomino shape is the most convex? How do you measure "convexity"? This is an interesting question that generated lots of discussion on Twitter. Some interesting methods of measuring this were discussed by Alexandre Muñiz (@two_star) in his blog post, "Vexed by Convexity." I think it would make a great discussion for students to rank the pentominoes by convexity and then defend their choices.
If you have a favourite activity, puzzle or game featuring pentominoes, I would love to hear about it! EL
I prepared a lesson plan to work with a student. I carefully considered how I would introduce the topic, the path that the lesson might take and the questions that I would ask to prompt our discussion. I thought about the manipulatives that we might use to visualize and physically interact with the problem. I had a course carefully laid out. I started by drawing an irregular, kidney shaped area on the desk and asked the student how he would estimate the area of the shape. I was prepared for a number of different responses that I thought I might hear... but the student didn't follow my carefully plotted course for our lesson. Instead he replied, "I'd use Pick's Theorem." I grew up sailing on the Columbia River. When changing course on a sailboat, you can either turn the bow (the front of the boat) through the wind (i.e. tacking) or you can turn the stern (the back of the boat) through the wind (i.e. jibing). When tacking, the boom gently moves from from one side of the boat to the other. Jibing on the other hand can be dangerous as the boom suddenly jumps to the other side of the boat. When the student suggested Pick's Theorem, it felt like changing course by jibing instead of by tacking.
After our excursion through Pick's Theorem we found our way back to estimating the area with some manipulatives. First we covered the shape with square tiles and then we covered the shape with pennies. We found that we could cover the shape with 66 square tiles. I asked the student how the area we found with Pick's Theorem and the area we found with square tiles compared. Through our discussion we decided that we needed a common way to talk about these areas so we converted both to square centimeters. We found that the area from Pick's Theorem was 382.5 cm^2 and the area using square tiles was 412.5 cm^2. Next, we looked at our penny solution. We looked up the diameter of a penny online and found that 135 pennies at 2.85 cm^2 each gave us a total area of 384.75 cm^2. While discussing how this estimate compared to our others, the student started talking about Alex Thue and his theorem on circle packing (this student has a really good memory). The student remembered that the efficiency of hexagonal packed pennies was about 91%. So we used this efficiency to correct our penny estimate to make it even better. This led to another discussion that I hadn't planned on about tesselations and polygons that tile the plane. The student said he had read in a book that there were 14 irregular pentagons that tile the plane. His book was a few years old however so he didn't know that a 15th pentagon had been discovered in 2015 or other recent work in this area. While the lesson didn't go quite as I had planned, I was really happy to be able to take the student's contributions to the discussion and weave them into the overall narrative of our work. Being flexible, listening to students and incorporating their contributions into a discussion can sometimes throw you off course and you might end up someplace unexpected. The journey along these altered courses however can be incredible. EL
The Riddle of the Tiled Hearth is one of many mathematical puzzles from Henry Ernest Dudeney's 1907 book titled The Canterbury Puzzles And Other Curious Problems. The first group of puzzles in this book are based on the characters from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Puzzles from this book could be used as part of a cross curricular unit on history, literature and mathematics. There are a number of very interesting puzzles and games including the first pentomino puzzle called The Broken Chessboard and a clever variation of the game Nim called The Thirty One Game. Since this book was first published in 1907, the copyright has expired and it is freely available on Project Gutenberg. It seems that it was Friar Andrew who first managed to "rede the riddle of the Tiled Hearth." Yet it was a simple enough little puzzle. The square hearth, where they burnt their Yule logs and round which they had such merry carousings, was floored with sixteen large ornamental tiles. When these became cracked and burnt with the heat of the great fire, it was decided to put down new tiles, which had to be selected from four different patterns (the Cross, the Fleurdelys, the Lion, and the Star); but plain tiles were also available. The Abbot proposed that they should be laid as shown in our sketch, without any plain tiles at all; but Brother Richard broke in, To use this activity with students, I would start by introducing using the tiled hearth story as written above. Then I would introduce some manipulatives that would let them physically explore and work with the puzzle. I would give each group of students a large 4x4 grid on a sheet of paper and some multilink cubes of 4 different colours.
One aspect of this puzzle that I like is that students can play around with it and have some intermediate success. They might just place a few cubes on the grid. With time, they can refine their solutions to get better and better. Below shows how a student might explore to place more and more cubes. The Solution from Canterbury Puzzles shows that the best solution leaves 3 blank spaces. Dudeney states, "The correct answer is shown in the illustration on page 196. No tile is in line (either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) with another tile of the same design, and only three plain tiles are used. If after placing the four lions you fall into the error of placing four other tiles of another pattern, instead of only three, you will be left with four places that must be occupied by plain tiles. The secret consists in placing four of one kind and only three of each of the others." Below are both my solution using cubes and Dudeney's equivalent solution. EL
Revisiting the Classic Ferris Wheel Problem
This type of pseudocontext word problem robs students of the opportunity to explore and analyze realworld problems in much depth. Dan Meyer has written quite quite a lot about pseudocontext. My concern with the Ferris wheel problem is not that you can't model the height of a seat on a Ferris wheel with a sine function, it is why would you do it? Instead of doing a textbook problem with a fictional Ferris wheel, I decided to use a real Ferris wheel from a nearby amusement park that some of my students would be familiar with. I visited the park to take a video of the Ferris wheel in action. Below is a 30 second clip of the "Big Ellie" Ferris Wheel at Atlantic Playland. Notice and WonderI started by asking students what they noticed in the video. After brainstorming and recording the students observations I asked students what they wondered about in the video. They asked questions like "how fast is the ride going?", "how tall is this Ferris wheel?", "how far can you see from the top of the ride?", "how long does the ride last?". In order to investigate these questions further we needed to estimate some values such as the radius of the wheel, how long it takes to make one revolution, and the height of the central axis about the ground. I asked students to estimate these values using the clues in the video we watched. We watched it several times in order to get some good estimates. I also talked about some of the mental math required to operate a ride like this. Because it is belt driven, you have to load the Ferris wheel so that it is equally balanced around the wheel. Otherwise, one side of the wheel would become too heavy and the drive cable would slip in the rim and the wheel wouldn't be able to turn! This requires a lot of on the fly estimates of weights of the riders as it is being loaded. In order to get a see how good we did with our estimations we turned to the internet in order to try to hunt down some of these values with a Google search. This lead to a discussion about what keywords we could use to hunt down this information. A search of "height of the central axis of the Ferris wheel at Atlantic Playland" was not very fruitful... an essential skill to solve a problem like this is to translate mathematical language into common terms that you can use for a Google search. Ve Anusic has a great blog post where he discusses a similar problem and the discussion with his students about the information you need and the information you might find online. First we did a search to find Atlantic Playland's website and found that they called their ride "Big Ellie". A search for this name lead us to believe that this Ferris wheel is a No. 5 Big Eli wheel made by Eli Bridge (I later emailed the park and confirmed that this is indeed the model of their Ferris wheel). Eli Bridge's website gave us some interesting information but not exactly what we were looking for. A bit more searching and we were able to find a pdf of the owner's manual for this ride that included a helpful diagram.
It is only after we were able to answer some of the students' questions regarding the video of the Ferris wheel did we start to talk how we might mathematically modeling the height of a person riding the wheel over time and the periodic nature of this function. Students were much better able to make sense of this visual model once they had a good grasp of the context of the problem.
Nova Scotia Mathematics Curriculum Outcomes Mathematics 12  RF03 Represent data, using sinusoidal functions, to solve problems. Precalculus 12  T04 Graph and analyze the trigonometric functions sine, cosine and tangent to solve problems. EL
I drive past this building every day on my way to work. It is Young Tower at 6080 Young Street in Halifax. I think it is pretty interesting... I used this picture as a problem solving warm up activity for a group of grade 10 math teachers recently. I gave each group of teachers a large piece of chart paper and asked them to divide the paper in half with a line. I asked teachers to brainstorm what they notice about this picture and record it on one half of their chart paper. I asked them to look at the picture using a number of lenses. What would an architect notice about this image? What would a person who worked at this building notice about this picture? What would a mathematician notice about this picture? After about 5 minutes of brainstorming, I asked each group to tell me one thing they noticed and I recorded it at the front of the room. Groups noticed things like the number and size of windows on the building ("about half the lateral surface is glass"), the shape of the building ("almost a cube"), the picture must have been taken on a weekend because there are very few cars in the parking lot, and the weather was really nice that day. Next I asked them to brainstorm what they wonder about this picture and record in on the other half of their chart paper. If this picture was the start of a math problem, what could that math problem be? What things that they noticed sparked their curiosity? After another 5 minutes, I asked each group once again to tell me one thing that they wondered. After looking at all the questions that the groups posed, we selected one and asked everyone to estimate an answer to that question. I also asked them what information would they need to make a more accurate estimate. Once they had an initial estimate, I gave them some additional information about the building and let them revise their estimate. We had several really interesting questions posed by groups. Some questions concerned the shape of the building, like "How close to a perfect cube is this building?" Other questions focused on finance such as, "How much revenue is generated by leasing all of the office space in this building?" One of my favourite 'wonderings' was, "How much wrapping paper would it take to wrap this building up like a Christmas present?"
This "I Notice/I Wonder" problem solving strategy is one that I saw shared by Max RayRiek from the Math Forum. He has a blog where he talks about Noticing and Wondering in High School. This strategy starts off with brainstorming to let students get familiar and engaged with a problem situation before jumping into a specific question to solve. By having students come up with questions, you'll often get more engagement and interest. It also allows you to respond to interesting suggestions from students that you might not have considered. It allows everyone in the class meaningful participation in the conversation because everyone has something that they can notice. This strategy might also create additional opportunities for differentiation by using several different questions that students suggested. EL
I really like some of the questions found on the Openmiddle.com website. It is a great resource for questions that really get students thinking. They are often formatted so that there is a very low threshold for entry to the problem but they allow for enrichment and extensions. I created the problem below for a professional development session for Math 10 teachers. Students in the Math 10 course are near the following outcome in the yearly plan: AN03 Students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of powers with integral and rational exponents. Fill in the boxes with whole numbers 1 through 6, using each number at most once, so that the value of the expression is as large (or as small) as possible.
In order to verify that these were correct values, I wrote a short program in Python (see below) to check all of the 720 possible (6!) values. It was my personal Hour of Code activity. I`m just learning to use Python so my code could definitely be more efficient. If you can write some better code, let me know and I`ll post it here and give you credit. ValuesList=[1.0,2.0,3.0,4.0,5.0,6.0] largest = 0 smallest = 10000 for i in ValuesList: for j in ValuesList: for k in ValuesList: for l in ValuesList: for m in ValuesList: for n in ValuesList: if i!=j and i!=k and i!=l and i!=m and i!=n and j!=k and j!=l and j!=m and j!=n and k!=l and k!=m and k!=n and l!=m and l!=n and m!=n: z=((i/j)**k)*(l**(m/n)) if z > largest: largest = z print "Largest",largest,i,j,k,l,m,n if z < smallest: smallest = z print "Smallest",smallest,i,j,k,l,m,n Update: I submitted this problem to the OpenMiddle.com website and it has been posted there. EL

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