My talk at the 2018 Williams College math camp

[had to write this in a hurry before the family headed off for a vacation – sorry that this post is likely a little sloppy]

Yesterday I gave a talk at a math camp for high school students at Williams College. The camp is run by Williams College math professor Allison Pacelli and has about 20 student.

The topic for my talk was the hypercube. In the 90 min talk, I hoped to share some amazing ideas I learned from Kelsey Houston-Edwards and Federico Ardila and then just see where things went.

A short list of background material for the talk (in roughly the order in the talk is):

(1) A discussion of how to count vertices, edges, faces, and etc in cubes of various dimensions

This is a project I did with my kids a few years ago, and I think helps break the ice a little bit for students who are (rightfully!) confused about what the 4th dimension might even mean:

Counting geometric properties in 4 and 6 dimensionsf

(2) With that introduction I had the students build regular cubes out of the Zometool set I brought. Then I gave them some yellow struts and asked them to construct what they thought a hypercube might look like. From the prior discussion they knew how many points and lines to expect.

To my super happy surprise, the students built two different representations. I had my boys talk about the two different representations this morning. Funny enough, they had difference preferences for which was the “best” representation:

Here’s what my older son had to say:

Here’s what my younger son had to say:

At the end of this section of my talk I showed the students “Hypercube B” from Bathsheba Grossman (as well as my Zometool version):

(3) Now we moved on to looking at cubes in a different way -> standing on a corner rather than laying flat

I learned about this amazing way to view a cube from this amazing video from Kelsey Houston-Edwards. One of the many bits of incredible math in this video is the connection between Pascal’s triangle and cubes.

Here are the two projects I did with my kids a after seeing Houston-Edwards’s video:

Kelsey Houston-Edwards’s hypercube video is incredible

One more look at the hypercube

After challenging the kids to think about what the “slices” of the 3- and 4-dimensional cubes standing on their corners would be, I showed them the 3D printed versions I prepared for the talk:

Here are the 2d slices of the 3d cube:

Here are the 3d slices of the 4d cube:

(4) Finally, we looked at the connection between cubes and combinatorics

I learned about this connection from this amazing video from Numberphile and Federico Ardila:

Here is the project I did with my older son after seeing Ardila’s video:

Federico Ardila’s Combinatorics and Higher Dimensions video is incredible!

I walked the students through how the vertices of a square correspond to the subsets of a 2-element set and then asked them to show how the vertices of a cube correspond to the subsets of a 3-element set.

There were a lot of oohs and ahhs as the students saw the elements of Pascal’s triangle emerge again.

Then I asked the students to find the correspondence between the 4-d cubes they’d made and subsets of a 4-elements set. I was incredibly happy to hear three different explanations from the students about how this correspondence worked – I actually wish these explanations were on video because I think Ardila would have absolutely loved to hear them.

(5) One last note

If you find all these properties of 4-D cubes as neat as I do, Jim Propp has a fantastic essay about 4 dimensional cubes:

Jim Propp’s essay Time and Tesseracts

By lucky coincidence, this essay was published as I was trying to think about how to structure my talk and was the final little push I needed to put all the ideas together.

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Sharing some number theory with kids thanks to Jim Propp’s “Who knows two?” blog post

Jim Propp published a terrific essay last week:

Here’s a direct link in case the Twitter link has problems:

Who knows two? by Jim Propp

Yesterday we did a fun project about card shuffling using the ideas from Propp’s post:

Sharing a card shuffling idea from Jim Propp’s “Who knows two?” essay with kids

Today we did a second project for kids based on some ideas from Propp’s post. The topic today was “primitive roots”. Unfortunately this isn’t a topic that I know well and I messed up one explanation in the first video below. Oh well . . . still a really neat idea to share with kids.

So, I started by introducing the concept of primitive roots by reminding them of the 8 card and 52 card shuffles we looked at yesterday (pay no attention to my explanation about powers and mods at the end. It will become clear in the next video that I goofed up that explanation . . . . ):

Now we looked at some examples of primitive roots with small numbers. These simple examples give a nice way for kids to get a little bit of arithmetic practice and also help them see the main ideas in the problem that we are studying.

After working through these smaller examples, we moved to the computer to continue studying the problem. My older son noticed that the examples that seemed take the longest time to work were primes, but not all primes took a long time. That’s exactly the math idea we are looking at here.

Next we made a small change to the program to study all of the odd numbers up to 1,000 all at once. After correcting a little bug we found that the numbers we were looking for were indeed all primes.

We wrapped up be talking about what was known and what wasn’t known about these primitive roots. I was happy that my older son seemed to be particularly interested in this problem.

Definitely a fun project. It is always fun to find unsolved problems that are accessible to kids (and lots of them seem to come from number theory!). We will definitely have to do some follow up projects to explore the ideas here in a bit more detail.

Sharing a card shuffling idea from Jim Propp’s “Who knows two?” essay with kids

Jim Propp published a terrific essay last week:

Here’s a direct link in case the Twitter link has problems:

Who knows two? by Jim Propp

One of the topics covered in the essay is a special type of card shuffle called the Faro shuffle. We have done a few projects on card shuffling projects previously, so I thought the kids would be interested in learning about the Faro shuffle. Here are our prior card shuffling projects:

Card Shuffling and Shannon Entropy

Chard Shuffling and Shannon Entropy part 2

Revisiting card shuffling after seeing a talk by Persi Diaconis

I started the project by asking the kids what they knew about cards. They remembered some of the shuffling projects and then introducing the idea of the Faro shuffle.

My younger son thought he saw a connection with pi, which was a fun surprise.

We continued studying the Faro shuffle with 8 cards and looked for patterns in the card numbers and positions. The boys noticed some neat patterns and were able to predict when we’d return to the original order of cards!

Next we looked at the paths taken by individual cards. My older son thought that there might be a connection with modular arithmetic (!!!) and the boys were able to find the pattern. I’d hoped that finding the pattern here would be within their reach, so it was a really nice moment when he brought up modular arithmetic.

Finally, we wrapped up by talking about how to extend the ideas to a 52 card deck and calculated how many Faro shuffles we’d need to get back to where we started.

I think that kids will find the idea of the Faro shuffle to be fascinating. Simply exploring the number patterns is a really interesting project, and there’s lots of really interesting math connected to the idea. I’m really thankful that Jim Propp takes the time to produce these incredible essays each month. They are a fantastic (and accessible) way to explore lots of fun mathematical ideas.

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

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 10.07.08 AM

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

Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 7.52.55 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-01-14 at 9.08.06 AM

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:

dodecahedron fold

Here’s the full project:

Can you believe that a dodecahedron folds into a cube?

A review of “The Sherlock”

We received a nice gift from Jim Propp earlier this month. With the kids off of school for a snow day today, it seemed like a good time to open it up.

My younger son played with it for a while and then I wanted to have him show how the game worked. Here are his initial thoughts about the game:

Here’s the first example of a puzzle solve. You’ll see that even having solved it once before it is still not necessarily so simple:

Here’s a second solve example – this one goes pretty quickly

Finally, we wrapped up by having him show some of the other pieces and me asking him to talk about what he thinks the main ideas are for this puzzle. Interestingly he doesn’t think that it is a math puzzle, but rather a logic puzzle 🙂

So, thanks to Jim Propp for giving us this really nice puzzle game.

A quick hexaflexagon project thanks to Jim Propp

My younger son had been interested in hexaflexagons lately. He saw them Martin Gardner’s “The Collossal Book of Mathematics” first and then I bought him a few books thanks to a suggestion from Annie Perkins:

Then, by lucky coincidence, Jim Propp made this fun video:

After watching that video with my son this morning, he took Propp’s suggestion and cut the corners off of one of his hexaflexagons. Here’s what he had to say:

Even tonight I’m not sure what he was getting at when he was talking about the hexagons moving when the shape was flexed. I might revisit that with him another time, but it was fun to hear him talking about what was going on with this new shape.

I’m happy that he’s been having fun with these shapes. Just when I thought there wasn’t any more he could do with them, Propp’s video opened up a

Sharing Jim Propp’s base 3/2 essay with kids part 2

I’m going through Jim Propp’s piece on base 3/2 with my kids this week.

His essay is here:

Jim Propp’s How do you write one hundred in base 3/2?

And the our first project using that essay is here:

Sharing Jim Propp’s base 3/2 essay with kids – Part 1

Originally I wanted to have the kids read the essay and give some of their thoughts for part 2, but I changed my mind on the approach this morning. Instead I asked each of them to answer the question in the title of Propp’s essay -> How do you write 100 in base 3/2?

Propp points out in his essay that his approach to base 3/2 via chip firing / Engel machines / exploding dots is not what mathematicians would normally consider to be base 3/2. The boys are not aware of that statement, though, since they have not read the essay yet.

Here’s how my younger son approached writing 100 in base 3/2. The first video is an introduction to the problem and, from knowing how to write numbers like 100 (in base 10) in other integer bases.

I think the first 3 minutes of this video are interesting because you get to hear his ideas about why this approach seems like a good idea. The remainder of this video plus the next two videos are a long march down the road to discovering why this approach doesn’t work in the version of base 3/2 we are studying:

So, after finding that the path we were walking down led to a dead end, we started over. This time my son decided to try to write 100 as 10×10. This approach does work!

Next I introduced the problem to my older son. He also started by trying to solve the problem the same way that you would for integer bases, though his technique was slightly different. He realized fairly quickly (by the end of the video, I mean) that this approach didn’t work:

My older son needed to find a new approach, and he ended up finding an idea different from my younger son’s idea to find 100 in base 3/2. His idea was to use chip firing:

I thought that today’s project would be a quick reminder of how base 3/2 works (at least the version we are studying). That thought was way off base and was completely influenced by me knowing the answer! Instead we found – by accident – a great example of how to explore a challenging problem in math. Sometimes the first few things you try don’t work, and you have to keep trying new things.

Definitely a fun morning!