Exploring Newton’s method with kids

Yesterday we had about a 30 min drive and I had the boys open up to a random page in this book for a few short discussions in the car:

There were some fun topics that were accessible for kids, but then Newton’s method came up. Ha ha – not really drive time talk 🙂

It did seem like it could be a fun project, though, so I took a crack at it today. The goal was not computation, but mainly just the geometric ideas. Here’s how we got started:

Next I asked the boys if they could find situations in which Newton’s method wouldn’t work as nicely as it did in the first video. They were able to identify a few potential problems:

Now I had both kids draw their own picture to play out what would happen when you used Newton’s method to find roots. I think there’s a lot of ways to used the exercise here to help older kids understand ideas about tangent lines and function generally. I mostly let the kids play around here, though, and the results were actually pretty fun:

Finally, we went to Mathematica to see some situations in which Newton’s method produces some amazing pictures. Here we switch from real-valued functions to complex valued functions. Since I wasn’t going into the details of now Newton’s method works, rather than using some easier to understand code, I just borrowed some existing code from here:

The page from A. Peter Young at U.C. Santa Cruz that gave me the Newton’s method code for Mathematica

The boys were amazed by the pictures. For example, (and this is one we looked at with the camera off) here’s a picture showing which root Newton’s method converges to depending on where you start for the function f(z) = z^3 - 2z + z - 1:


Definitely a fun project. Even if the computational details are a bit out of reach, it is fun to share ideas like this with kids every now and then.

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