# 15 (+1 bonus) Math ideas for a 6th grade math camp

Saw an interesting tweet last week and I’ve been thinking about pretty much constantly for the last few days:

I had a few thoughts initially – which I’ll repeat in this post – but I’ve had a bunch of others since. Below I’ll share 10 ideas that require very few materials – say scissors, paper, and maybe snap cubes – and then 5 more that require a but more – things like a computer or a Zometool set.

The first 4 are the ones I shared in response to the original tweet:

## (1) Fawn Nguyen’s take on the picture frame problem

This is one of the most absolutely brilliant math projects for kids that I’ve ever seen:

When I got them to beg

Here’s how I went through it with my younger son a few years ago:

## (2) James Tanton’s Mobius strip cutting exerciese

This is a really fun take on this famous scissors and paper cutting exercise:

You will honestly not believe what you are seeing when you go through Tanton’s version:

Here’s the link to our project:

James Tanton’s incredible mobius strop cutting project

## (3) Martin Gardner’s hexapawn “machine learning” exercise

For this exercise the students will play a simple game called “hexapawn” and a machine consisting of beads in boxes will “learn” to beat them. It is a super fun game and somewhat amazing that an introductory machine learning exercise could have been designed so long ago!

Intro “machine learning” for kids via Martin Gardner’s article on hexapawn

## (4) Katie Steckles’ “Fold and Cut” video

This video is a must see and it was a big hit with elementary school kids when I used it for “Family Math” night:

Here are our projects – all you need is scissors and paper.

Our One Cut Project

Fold and cut project #2

Fold and cut part 3

## (5) Along the same lines – Joel David Hamkins’s version of “Fold and Punch”

I found this activity in one of the old “Family Math” night boxes:

Joel David Hamkins saw my tweet and created an incredible activity for kids.  Here’s a link to that project on his blog:

Joel David Hamkins’s fold, punch and cut for symmetry!

## (6) Kelsey Houston-Edwards’s “5 Unusual Proofs” video

Just one of many amazing math outreach videos that Kelsey Houston-Edwards put together during her time at PBS Infinite Series:

Here is how I used the project with my kids:

Kelsey Houston-Edwards’s “Proof” video is incredible

## (7) Sharing the surreal numbers with kids via Jim Propp’s checker stacks game

Jim Propp published a terrific essay on the surreal numbers in 2015:

Jim Propp’s “Life of Games”

In the essay he uses the game “checker stacks” to help explain / illustrate the surreal numbers. That essay got me thinking about how to share the surreal numbers with kids. We explored the surreal numbers in 4 different projects and I used the game for an hour long activity with 4th and 5th graders at Family Math night at my son’s elementary school.

This project takes a little bit of prep work just to make sure you understand the game, but it is all worth it when you see the kids arguing about checker stacks with value “infinity” and “infinity plus 1” 🙂

Here is a summary blog post linking to all of our surreal number projects:

Sharing the Surreal Numbers with kids

## (8) Larry Guth’s “No Rectangle” problem

I learned about this problem when I attended a public lecture Larry Guth gave at MIT.  Here’s my initial introduction of the problem to my kids:

I’ve used this project with a large group of kids a few times (once with 2nd and 3rd graders and it caused us to run 10 min long because they wouldn’t stop arguing about the problem!). It is really fun to watch them learn about the problem on a 3×3 grid and then see if they can prove the result. Then you move to a 4×4 grid, and then a 5×5 and, well, that’s probably enough for 80 min 🙂

Larry Guth’s “No Rectangles” problem

## (9) The “Monty Hall Problem”

This is a famous problem, that equally famously generates incredibly strong opinions from anyone thinking about it. These days I only discuss the problem in larger group settings to try to avoid arguments.

Here’s the problem:

There are prizes behind each of 3 doors. 1 door hides a good prize and 2 of the doors hide consolation prizes. You select a door at random. After that selection one of the doors that you didn’t select will be opened to reveal a consolation prize. At that point you will be given the opportunity to switch your initial selection to the door that was not opened. The question is  -> does switching increase, decrease, or leave your chance of winning unchanged?

One fun idea I tried with the boys was exploring the problem using clear glasses to “hide” the prizes, so that they could see the difference between the switching strategy and the non-switching strategy:

Here’s our full project:

Exploring the Monty Hall problem with kids

## (10) Using the educational material from Moon Duchin’s math and gerrymandering conference with kids

Moon Duchin has spent the last few years working to educate large groups of people – mathematicians, politicians, lawyers, and more – about math and gerrymandering.  . Some of the ideas in the educational materials the math and gerrymandering group has created are accessible to 6th graders.

Here’s our project using these math and gerrymandering educational materials:

Sharing some ideas about math and gerrymandering with kids

## (11) This is a computer activity -> Intro machine learning with Google’s Tensorflow playground.

This might be a nice companion project to go along with the Martin Gardner project above. This is how I introduced the boys to the Tensorflow Playground site (other important ideas came ahead of this video, so it doesn’t stand alone):

Our complete project is here:

Sharing basic machine learning ideas with kids

## (12) Computer math and the Chaos game

The 90 seconds starting at 2:00 is one of my all time favorite moments sharing math with my kids:

The whole project is here, but the essence of it is in the above video:

Computer math and the chaos game

## (13) Another computer project -> Finding e by throwing darts at a chess board

This is a neat introductory probability project for kids. I learned about it from this tweet:

You don’t need a computer to do this project, but you do need a way to pick 64 random numbers. Having a little computer help will make it easier to repeat the project a few times (or have more than one group work with different numbers).

Here’s how I introduced the project to my kids:

Here’s the full project:

Finding e by throwing darts

## (14) Looking at shapes you can make with bubbles

For this project you need bubble solution and some way to make wire frames. We’ve had a lot of success making the frames from our Zometool set, but if you click through the bubble projects we’ve done, you’ll see some wire frames with actual wires.

Here’s an example of how one of these bubble projects goes:

And here’s a listing of a bunch of bubble projects we’ve done:

Our bubble projects

## (15) Our project inspired by Ann-Marie Ison’s math art:

This tweet from Ann-Marie Ison caught my eye:

Then Martin Holtham created a fantastic Desmos activity to help explore the ideas:

It is fun to just play with, but if you want to see how I approached the ideas with my kids, here are our projects:

Using Ann-Marie Ison’s incredible math art with kids

Extending our project with Ann-Marie Ison’s art

## (16) Bonus project!!A dodecahedron folding into a cube

This is a an incredible idea from 3d geometry.

We studied it using our Zometool set – that’s not the only way to go, but it might be the easiest:

Here’s the full project:

Can you believe that a dodecahedron folds into a cube?

# Fawn Nguyen’s Olive problem

Last night Fawn Nguyen posted a neat problem for kids:

I thought it would be fun to try out the problem with the boys this morning. My younger son went first (while my older son was practicing viola in the background). He described his approach as “guess and check”:

My older son went next. I think we wasn’t super focused at first because Fawn’s problem about 75 olives became a problem about 40 apples, but once he got back on track he found a nice solution. His approach looked at the number of non-green olives since that number stayed constant:

It was fun to see the two different approaches, and also interesting to see that my two kids approach percentages very differently. This was a nice problem to start the day.

# Fawn Nguyen’s incredible Euclidean Algorithm project

Fawn Nguyen recently published an incredible blog post about a project related to the Euclidean Algorithm that she did with her students:

Fawn Nguyen’s “Euclid’s Algorithm

 The above link is broken, but Fawn’s post is here:

https://www.fawnnguyen.com/teach/euclids-algorithm

Fawn’s projects are usually very easy to do right out of the box, and this one is especially easy since you can just start with her pictures. So, we just dove in.

You’ll see from the comments my kids had that Fawn really has made using this blog post effortless:

Next I asked them to make their own shapes. They built the shapes off camera and then we talked about them.

At the end I asked them when they thought a shape would require 1x1x1 cubes.

After hearing their thoughts about relatively prime numbers at the end of the last video I asked them to make a shape that wouldn’t require 1x1x1 cubes to finish. Here’s what they made and why they thought it would work:

Such a fun project. Fawn’s work is so amazing. I love using her posts with my kids.

# Steven Strogatz’s circle area project – part 2

Yesterday we did a really fun project inspired by a tweet from Steven Strogatz:

Here’s tweet:

Here’s the project:

Steven Strogatz’s circle-area exercise

During the 3rd part of our project yesterday the boys wondered how the triangle from Strogatz’s tweet would change if you had more pieces. They had a few ideas, but couldn’t really land on a final answer.

While we punted on the question yesterday, as I sort of daydreamed about it today I realized that it made a great project all by itself. Unlike the case of the pieces converging to the same rectangle, the triangle shape appears to converge to a “line” with an area of $\pi r^2$, and a lot of the math that describes what’s going on is really neat. Also, since my kids always want to make Fawn Nguyen happy – some visual patterns make a surprise appearance 🙂

So, we started with a quick review of yesterday’s project:

The first thing we did was explore how we could arrange the pieces if we cut the circle into 4 pieces.

After that we looked for patterns. We found a few and my younger son found one (around 4:09) that I totally was not expecting – his pattern completely changed the direction of today’s project:

In this section of the project we explored the pattern that my son found as we move from step to step in our triangles. After understanding that pattern a bit more we found an answer to the question from yesterday about how the shape of the triangle changes as we add more pieces.

Both kids thought it was strange that the shape became very much like a line with a finite area.

The last thing that we did was investigate why the odd integers from 1 to N add up to be $late N^2$. My older son found an algebraic solution (which, just for time purposes I worked through for him) and then we talked about the usual geometric interpretation.

So, a great two day project with lots of fun twists and turns. So glad I saw Strogatz’s tweet on Friday!

# John Golden’s visual pattern problem

We seem to always start our year off with a Fawn Nguyen-like problem. Today it happened by accident when I saw this visual pattern problem from John Golden:

We tried out the problem for a little after dinner math challenge tonight. Here’s what the boys thought initially – I was happy to see that they noticed that they could look at the pattern going backwards as well as forwards:

At the end of the last movie the boys wanted to make the base for the next tower. We did that with the camera off and then started looking at the pattern again.

I was a little surprised that they wanted to make this next piece rather than just talk about it, but making it did seem to help them see what the pattern was. In fact, their initial guess at the pattern was totally different from what I saw 🙂

So, although we didn’t get all the way to the formula for the nth step, we did find a way to determine (in theory) the number of blocks on any of the steps. I remember playing around with these difference tables in high school and being absolutely amazed – it is fun to be able to play around with them with the boys now.

# Fawn Nguyen’s fraction puzzle

Saw this old blog post from Fawn Nguyen making the rounds again this week:

Drawing Rectangles instead of Writing Equations

and decided to give the problem a try with the kids this morning.

Here’s the problem: In a town, 3/7 of the men are married to 2/3 of the women. What fraction of the people in the town are married?

I did the problem with pairs of snap cubes instead of marriage. Here’s now it went:

/

After they finished their solution, I showed them Fawn’s solution. My younger son was a little confused about adding fractions versus what’s going on in this problem. Hopefully that confusion was straightened out by the end of the video.

/

So, another nice problem from Fawn. It is fun to be able to talk through a non-standard fraction problem like this one with the boys.

# A Fawn-tastic start to the school year

Just like last year, I made it exactly two days into the school year before working through an activity that Fawn Nguyen shared with the boys. Guess the over / under for nest year should be pretty easy to set!

Today Fawn tweeted about her new project:

The 2nd lesson – Algebraic Thinking – caught my eye and I thought I’d have each of the boys work through 2 of the 8 problems.

Here’s my younger son’s work on problem #1:

and on problem #5 – I love the language that he uses when he solves this problem:

Here is my older son working through problem #3 – his language solving this problem is also great:

and here’s his work on #6:

So, another great start to the year thanks to Fawn Nguyen. Sharing her project with the boys always makes for a fun evening.

# A great problem that Chris Hunter and Fawn Nguyen showed me yesterday

Had a fun time yesterday showing up at the end of the NCTM conference in Boston. What was originally a plan to grab lunch with Fawn Nguyen and Dan Anderson turned into a full day of meeting tons of people I’d only known online.

Over drinks at one of the bars at the conference hotel, Chris Hunter and Fawn showed me a really cool problem from Chris’s blog:

Chris Hunter’s blog

The problem is pretty easy to state – you and two friends go to the store to buy shoes. You have a “buy 2 get one free” coupon that allows you to get the lowest price pair out of 3 pairs for free. The question is what is the fair way for the three of you to split the savings?

I was so excited to try out this problem with the boys today that I stole the napkin that Fawn was writing on!

It seemed like the best way to go through this problem was with each kid individually. I started with my younger son. He had a little bit of trouble understanding the problem (so this video goes about 7 min) – the cost savings combined with the free item confused him, for example. However, with a few little clarifications he was able to get to an answer that he thought was fair.

Next up we looked at a similar problem with different numbers. These numbers present a new issue to deal with if you want to split the total price equally. This second problem also served as a great way for my younger son to get a little more clarity on some of the previous parts of the problem that had confused him.

Next up was my older son. His initial focus was on everyone paying the same amount, but after thinking about it for a little bit longer the equal split idea started to bother him. He wasn’t sure what a “fair split” meant. He thought for a while about other fair ways to split the price and eventually found the idea of splitting the savings. That thought process shows what I really like about this problem – lots of opportunities for thinking here and no obvious “right” answer. At the end, though, he thought splitting the total price equally was the most fair.

The neat thing about my son’s conclusion in the first problem is that it set up the next problem perfectly. If we split the total price equally in the second problem, there’s a strange issue for one of the three people. It takes him a while to notice the problem, but when he does notice it he thinks that the “splitting the savings” here is the fair way.

So, definitely a great problem for getting kids to talk about math. I really like the idea that different people are going to have different ideas about what is fair here, and I imagine those different ideas would lead to some really fun debates in a classroom setting.

# 10 fun math things from 2014

I’ve been paying attention to math a little more in 2014 than I have in previous years and thought it would be fun to put together a list of fun math-related things I’ll remember from this year:

(10) Dan Anderson’s “My Favorite” post

Dan asks his students to talk about things they would like to learn more about in math class, and the students talked about subjects ranging from topology to diving scoring. I was really happy to see the incredibly wide range of topics that the kids thought would be interesting. Beautiful post by Dan and a fantastic list of topics chosen by his students – this one made a big impression on me:

Dan Anderson’s “My Favorite” post

My initial reaction to Dan’s post is here:

A list Ed Frenkel will love

(9) Laura Taalman’s Makerhome blog:

We bought a 3D printer early in the year and it allowed us to do a bunch of math projects that wouldn’t have occurred to me in a million years. Most of those projects came either directly or indirectly from reading Laura Taalman’s 3D printing blog. As 3D printing becomes cheaper and hopefully more available in schools, Taalman’s blog is going to become the go to resource for math and 3D printing. It is an absolute treasure:

Laura Taalman’s Makerhome blog

An early post of mine about the possibilities of 3D printing in education is here:

Learning from 3D Printing

and one of our later projects is here:

Klein Bottles and Möbius Strips

(8) Numberphile

It has been nearly a year since Numberphile’s fun infinite series video hit the web. I know people had mixed feelings about it, but I loved seeing a math video spark so many discussions:

I’ve used so many of their videos to talk math with my kids, I’m not even sure which of them to pick for examples. Here are two:

Using Numberphile’s “All Triangles are Equilateral” video to talk about constructions

Some fun with Numberphile’s Pythagorean Theorem video

(7) Fields Medals and the Breakthrough Prizes

Erica Klarreich’s coverage of the Fields Medals over at Quanta Magazine was absolutely amazing. Two of her articles are below, but all of them (including the videos) are must reads. Her work her made it possible for anyone to meet the four 2014 Fields medal winners:

Erica Klarreich on Manjul Bhargava

Erica Klarreich on Maryam Mirzakhan

A really cool opportunity to understand the work of one of the Fields Medal winners came when the Mathematical Association of America made an old Manjul Bhargava’s paper available to the public. I had a lot of fun playing around with this paper (that he wrote as an undergraduate, btw). It made me feel sort of connected to math research again:

A fun surprised with Euler’s identity coming from Manjul Bhargava’s generalized factorials

The Breakthrough Prizes in math didn’t seem to get as much attention as the Fields Medals did, which is too bad. The Breakthrough Prize winners each gave a public lecture about math. Jacob Lurie’s lecture was absolutely wonderful and a great opportunity to show kids a little bit of fun math and a little bit about the kinds of problems that mathematicians think about:

Using Jacob Lurie’s Breakthrough Prize talk with kids

I’m glad to see more and more opportunities for the general public to see and appreciate the work of the mathematical community. Speaking of which . . . .

(6) Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to be Wrong”

Jordan Ellenberg’s book How not to be Wrong is one of the best books about math for the general public I’ve ever read. I have it on audiobook and have been through it probably 3 times in various trips back and forth to Boston. My kids even enjoy listening to it – “consider the set of all integers plus a pig” always gets a laugh.

One of the more mathy takeaways for me was his discussion of infinite series and what he calls “algebraic intimidation.” Both led to fun (and overlapping) discussions with my kids:

Jordan Ellenberg’s “Algebraic Intimidation”

(5) The Mega Menger Project

The Mega Menger project was a world wide project that involved building a “level 4” Menger sponge out of special business cards. We participated in the project at the Museum of Math in NYC. The kids had such a good time that they asked to go down again the following weekend to help finish the build.

It was nice to see so many kids involved with the build in New York. It also made for another fun opportunity to explore the math behind the project a little more deeply:

The Museum of Math and Mega Menger

(4) People having a little fun with math and math results

For some family fun, check out the new game Prime Climb:

our review is here:

A review of Prime Climb by Math for Love

Also, don’t forget to have a little fun when tweeting about new and important math results. Like Jordan Ellenberg tweeting about the solution of an old Paul Erdos conjecture:

Erica Klarreich’s Quanta Magazine article on the same result was just published yesterday by coincidence:

Erica Klarreich on prime gaps

For me the math laugh of the year was Aperiodical announcing the results of an 8 year search confirming the 44th Mersenne Prime:

(3) Evelyn Lamb’s writing

Evelyn Lamb’s blog is a must read for me. I love the wide range of topics and am pretty jealous of her incredible ability to communicate abstract math ideas with ease. Her coverage of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum was sensational (ahem Breakthrough Prize folks, take note!). This post, in particular, gave me quite a bit to think about:

A Computer Scientist Tells Mathematicians How To Write Proofs

My thoughts on proof in math are here:

Proof in math

Away from her blog, if you want a constant source of fun and interesting math ideas just follow her on Twitter. For instance this tweet:

led to a great little project with the boys:

Irrationality of the Square root of 2

(2) Terry Tao’s public lecture at the Museum of Math

On of the most amazing lectures that I’ve ever seen is Terry Tao’s public lecture at the Museum of Math. I don’t know how it had escaped my attention previously, but I finally ran across it about a month ago. What an incredible – probably unparalleled – opportunity to learn from one of the greatest mathematicians alive today:

Explaining a few bits of his talk in more detail led to three super fun projects with the boys:

Part 1 of using Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture to talk about math with kids – the Moon and the Earth

Part 2 of using Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture to talk about math with kids – Clocks and Mars

Part 3 of using Terry Tao’s MoMath lecture to talk about math with kids – the speed of light and paralax

(1) Fawn Nguyen’s work

When one of the top mathematicians around is tweeting about projects going on in a 6th grade classroom 2000 miles away, the world is working the right way!

Fawn is producing and sharing some of the most interesting math projects for kids that I have ever seen, and I’m super happy that her work is getting recognized. She’s probably inspired more than 20 projects with the boys, and I can’t wait for the next 20 in 2015. Here are two from this year:

Fawn Nguyen’s Geometry Problem

A 3d Geometry proof without words courtesy of Fawn Nguyen

If you have even a passing interest in fun, exciting, and generally kick-ass math projects for kids – you have to follow Fawn.

# Fawn Nguyen’s geometry problem

Fawn Nguyen published a great geometry problem on her blog last night:

It was really neat to see the pictures of the work her students were doing.  What also struck me is that there are so many different ways to approach this problem.

My own personal style of problem solving has always been heavy on computation.  I saw Fawn’s problem as a similar triangle problem:

I was actually having a hard time understanding the approach her students were taking in some of the pictures and asked Fawn about it.  It turned out that the approach was not the computationally heavy similar triangle approach, but a much more simple approach with areas:

Sweet!

That solution got me wondering about other geometric solutions and also how my son would solve the problem.  Since we are just now finishing up a section in his geometry book about similar triangles, I guessed he would look at similar triangles.  He didn’t.  He actually drew in the extra piece to make the large rectangle exactly as Fawn’s student’s had done (!), but then he went in a slightly different direction from Fawn’s diagrams above which I wasn’t expecting at all  (and sorry for the interruption from the cat):

Finally, I noticed a (slightly) different area solution which is, of course, is a little more computational.  I wanted to go through this solution just to get in a little extra algebra practice and also to show my son a different approach to the problem that also uses areas:

I love problems that have lots of different types of solutions.  The setup in Fawn’s problem seems so simple – just a rectangle and a triangle – and it is amazing to me that there are so many different kinds of solutions.  Fawn’s lesson here is a great reminder to me to focus more time on the more geometric solutions since my natural instincts seem to be to focus on the computation.

Thanks for sharing another great problem, Fawn!