# Category Archives: problem-solving

## Binomial Expansion Variation

Several years ago, I posed on this ‘blog a problem I learned from Natalie Jackucyn:

For some integers A, B, and n, one term of the expansion of $(Ax+By)^n$ is $27869184x^5y^3$.  What are the values of A, B, and n?

In this post, I reflect for a moment on what I’ve learned from the problem and outline a solution approach before sharing a clever alternative solution one of my students this year leveraged through her CAS-enabled investigation.

WHAT I LEARNED BEFORE THIS YEAR

Mostly, I’ve loved this problem for its “reversal” of traditional binomial expansion problems that typically give A, B, and n values and ask for either complete expansions or specific terms of the polynomial.  Both of these traditional tasks are easily managed via today’s technology.  In Natalie’s variation, neither the answer nor how you would proceed are immediately obvious.

The first great part of the problem is that it doesn’t seem to give enough information.  Second, it requires solvers to understand deeply the process of polynomial expansion.  Third, unlike traditional formulations, Natalie’s version doesn’t allow students to avoid deep thinking by using technology.

In the comments to my original post, Christopher Olah and a former student, Bryan Spellman, solved the problem via factoring and an Excel document, respectively.  Given my algebraic tendencies, I hadn’t considered Bryan’s Excel “search” approach, but one could relatively easily program Excel to provide an exhaustive search.  I now think of Bryan’s approach as a coding approach to a reasonably efficient search of the sample space of possible solutions.  Most of my students’ solutions over the years essentially approach the problem the same way, but less efficiently, by using one-case-at-a-time expansions via CAS commands until they stumble upon good values for A, B, and n.  Understandably, students taking this approach typically become the most frustrated.

Christopher’s approach paralleled my own.  The x and y exponents from the expanded term show that n=5+3=8.  Expanding a generic $(Ax+By)^8$ then gives a bit more information.  From my TI-Nspire CAS,

so there are 56 ways an $x^5y^3$ term appears in this expansion before combining like terms (explained here, if needed).  Dividing the original coefficient by 56 gives $a^5b^3=497,664$, the coefficient of $x^5y^3$.

The values of a and b are integers, so factoring 497,664 shows these coefficients are both co-multiples of 2 and 3, but which ones?  In essence, this defines a system of equations.  The 3 has an exponent of 5, so it can easily be attributed to a, but the 11 is not a multiple of either 5 or 3, so it must be a combination.  Quick experimentation with the exponents leads to $11=5*1+3*2$, so $2^1$ goes to a and $2^2$ goes to b.  This results in $a=3*2=6$ and $b=2^2=4$.

WHAT A STUDENT TAUGHT ME THIS YEAR

After my student, NB, arrived at $a^5b^3=497,664$ , she focused on roots–not factors–for her solution.  The exponents of a and b suggested using either a cubed or a fifth root.

The fifth root would extract only the value of a if b had only singleton factors–essentially isolating the a and b values–while the cubed root would extract a combination of a and b factors, leaving only excess a factors inside the radical.  Her investigation was simplified by the exact answers from her Nspire CAS software.

From the fifth root output, the irrational term had exponent 1/5, not the expected 3/5, so b must have had at least one prime factor with non-singular multiplicity.  But the cubed root played out perfectly.   The exponent–2/3–matched expectation, giving a=6, and the coefficient, 24, was the product of a and b, making b=4.  Clever.

EXTENSIONS & CONCLUSION

Admittedly, NB’s solution would have been complicated if the parameter was composed of something other than singleton prime factors, but it did present a fresh, alternative approach to what was becoming a comfortable problem for me.  I’m curious about exploring other arrangements of the parameters of $(Ax+By)^n$ to see how NB’s root-based reasoning could be extended and how it would compare to the factor solutions I used before.  I wonder which would be “easier” … whatever “easier” means.

As a ‘blog topic for another day, I’ve learned much by sharing this particular problem with several teachers over the years.  In particular, the initial “not enough information” feel of the problem statement actually indicates the presence of some variations that lead to multiple solutions.  If you think about it, NB’s root variation of the solution suggests some direct paths to such possible formulations.  As intriguing as the possibilities here are, I’ve never assigned such a variation of the problem to my students.

As I finish this post, I’m questioning why I haven’t yet taken advantage of these possibilities.  That will change. Until then, perhaps you can find some interesting or alternative approaches to the underlying systems of equations in this problem.  Can you create a variation that has multiple solutions?  Under what conditions would such a variation exist?  How many distinct solutions could a problem like this have?

## Envelope Curves

My precalculus class recently returned to graphs of sinusoidal functions with an eye toward understanding them dynamically via envelope curves:  Functions that bound the extreme values of the curves. What follows are a series of curves we’ve explored over the past few weeks.  Near the end is a really cool Desmos link showing an infinite progression of periodic envelopes to a single curve–totally worth the read all by itself.

GETTING STARTED

As a simple example, my students earlier had seen the graph of $f(x)=5+2sin(x)$ as $y=sin(x)$ vertically stretched by a magnitude of 2 and then translated upward 5 units.  In their return, I encouraged them to envision the function behavior dynamically instead of statically.  I wanted them to see the curve (and the types of phenomena it could represent) as representing dynamic motion rather than a rigid transformation of a static curve.  In that sense, the graph of f oscillated 2 units (the coefficient of sine in f‘s equation) above and below the line $y=5$ (the addend in the equation for f).  The curves $y=5+2=7$ and $y=5-2=3$ define the “Envelope Curves” for $y=f(x)$.

When you graph $y=f(x)$ and its two envelope curves, you can picture the sinusoid “bouncing” between its envelopes.  We called these ceiling and floor functions for f.  Ceilings happen whenever the sinusoid term reaches its maximum value (+1), and floors when the sinusoidal term is at its minimum (-1).

Those envelope functions would be just more busy work if it stopped there, though.  The great insights were that anything you added to a sinusoid could act as a midline with the coefficient, AND anything multiplied by the sinusoid is its amplitude–the distance the curve moves above and below its midline.  The fun comes when you start to allow variable expressions for the midline and/or amplitudes.

VARIABLE MIDLINES AND ENVELOPES

For a first example, consider $y= \frac{x}{2} + sin(x)$.  By the reasoning above, $y= \frac{x}{2}$ is the midline.  The amplitude, 1, is the coefficient of sine, so the envelope curves are $y= \frac{x}{2}+1$ (ceiling) and $y= \frac{x}{2}-1$ (floor).

That got their attention!  Notice how easy it is to visualize the sine curve oscillating between its envelope curves.

For a variable amplitude, consider $y=2+1.2^{-x}*sin(x)$.  The midline is $y=2$, with an “amplitude” of $1.2^{-x}$.  That made a ceiling of $y=2+1.2^{-x}$ and a floor of $y=2-1.2^{-x}$, basically exponential decay curves converging on an end behavior asymptote defined by the midline.

SINUSOIDAL MIDLINES AND ENVELOPES

Now for even more fun.  Convinced that both midlines and amplitudes could be variably defined, I asked what would happen if the midline was another sinusoid?  For $y=cos(x)+sin(x)$, we could think of $y=cos(x)$ as the midline, and with the coefficient of sine being 1, the envelopes are $y=cos(x)+1$ and $y=cos(x)-1$.

Since cosine is a sinusoid, you could get the same curve by considering $y=sin(x)$ as the midline with envelopes $y=sin(x)+1$ and $y=sin(x)-1$.  Only the envelope curves are different!

The curve $y=cos(x)+sin(x)$ raised two interesting questions:

1. Was the addition of two sinusoids always another sinusoid?
2. What transformations of sinusoidal curves could be defined by more than one pair of envelope curves?

For the first question, they theorized that if two sinusoids had the same period, their sum was another sinusoid of the same period, but with a different amplitude and a horizontal shift.  Mathematically, that means

$A*cos(\theta ) + B*sin(\theta ) = C*cos(\theta -D)$

where A & B are the original sinusoids’ amplitudes, C is the new sinusoid’s amplitude, and D is the horizontal shift.  Use the cosine difference identity to derive

$A^2 + B^2 = C^2$  and $\displaystyle tan(D) = \frac{B}{A}$.

For $y = cos(x) + sin(x)$, this means

$\displaystyle y = cos(x) + sin(x) = \sqrt{2}*cos \left( x-\frac{\pi}{4} \right)$,

and the new coefficient means $y= \pm \sqrt{2}$ is a third pair of envelopes for the curve.

Very cool.  We explored several more sums and differences with identical periods.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE PERIODS DIFFER?

Try a graph of $g(x)=cos(x)+cos(3x)$.

Using the earlier concept that any function added to a sinusoid could be considered the midline of the sinusoid, we can picture the graph of g as the graph of $y=cos(3x)$ oscillating around an oscillating midline, $y=cos(x)$:

IF you can’t see the oscillations yet, the coefficient of the $cos(3x)$ term is 1, making the envelope curves $y=cos(x) \pm 1$.  The next graph clear shows $y=cos(3x)$ bouncing off its ceiling and floor as defined by its envelope curves.

Alternatively, the base sinusoid could have been $y=cos(x)$ with envelope curves $y=cos(3x) \pm 1$.

Similar to the last section when we added two sinusoids with the same period, the sum of two sinusoids with different periods (but the same amplitude) can be rewritten using an identity.

$cos(A) + cos(B) = 2*cos \left( \frac{A+B}{2} \right) * cos \left( \frac{A-B}{2} \right)$

This can be proved in the present form, but is lots easier to prove from an equivalent form:

$cos(x+y) + cos(x-y) = 2*cos(x) * cos(y)$.

For the current function, this means $y = cos(x) + cos(3x) = 2*cos(x)*cos(2x)$.

Now that the sum has been rewritten as a product, we can now use the coefficient as the amplitude, defining two other pairs of envelope curves.  If $y=cos(2x)$ is the sinusoid, then $y= \pm 2cos(x)$ are envelopes of the original curve, and if $y=cos(x)$ is the sinusoid, then $y= \pm 2cos(2x)$ are envelopes.

In general, I think it’s easier to see the envelope effect with the larger period function.  A particularly nice application connection of adding sinusoids with identical amplitudes and different periods are the beats musicians hear from the constructive and destructive sound wave interference from two instruments close to, but not quite in tune.  The points where the envelopes cross on the x-axis are the quiet points in the beats.

A STUDENT WANTED MORE

In class last Friday, my students were reviewing envelope curves in advance of our final exam when one made the next logical leap and asked what would happen if both the coefficients and periods were different.  When I mentioned that the exam wouldn’t go that far, she uttered a teacher’s dream proclamation:  She didn’t care.  She wanted to learn anyway.  Making up some coefficients on the spot, we decided to explore $f(x)=2sin(x)+5cos(2x)$.

Assuming for now that the cos(2x) term is the primary sinusoid, the envelope curves are $y=2sin(x) \pm 5$.

That was certainly cool, but at this point, we were no longer satisfied with just one answer.  If we assumed sin(x) was the primary sinusoid, the envelopes are $y=5cos(2x) \pm 2$.

Personally, I found the first set of envelopes more satisfying, but it was nice that we could so easily identify another.

With the different periods, even though the  coefficients are different, we decided to split the original function in a way that allowed us to use the $cos(A)+cos(B)$ identity introduced earlier.  Rewriting,

$f(x)=2sin(x)+5cos(2x) = 2cos \left( x - \frac{ \pi }{2} \right) + 2cos(2x) + 3cos(2x)$ .

After factoring out the common coefficient 2, the first two terms now fit the $cos(A) + cos(B)$ identity with $A = x - \frac{ \pi }{2}$ and $B=2x$, allowing the equation to be rewritten as

$f(x)= 2 \left( 2*cos \left( \frac{x - \frac{ \pi }{2} + 2x }{2} \right) * cos \left( \frac{x - \frac{ \pi }{2} - 2x }{2} \right) \right) + 3cos(2x)$

$\displaystyle = 4* cos \left( \frac{3}{2} x - \frac{ \pi }{4} \right) * cos \left( - \frac{1}{2} x - \frac{ \pi }{4} \right) + 3cos(2x)$.

With the expression now containing three sinusoidal expressions, there are three more pairs of envelope curves!

Arguably, the simplest approach from this form assumes $cos(2x)$ from the $latex$3cos(2x)\$ term as the sinusoid, giving $y=2sin(x)+2cos(2x) \pm 3$ (the pre-identity form three equations earlier in this post) as envelopes.

We didn’t go there, but recognizing that new envelopes can be found simply by rewriting sums creates an infinite number of additional envelopes.  Defining these different sums with a slider lets you see an infinite spectrum of envelopes.  The image below shows one.  Here is the Desmos Calculator page that lets you play with these envelopes directly.

If the $cos \left( \frac{3}{3} x - \frac{ \pi}{4} \right)$term was the sinusoid, the envelopes would be $y=3cos(2x) \pm 4cos \left( - \frac{1}{2} x - \frac{ \pi }{4} \right)$.  If you look closely, you will notice that this is a different type of envelope pair with the ceiling and floor curves crossing and trading places at $x= \frac{\pi}{2}$ and every $2\pi$ units before and after.  The third form creates another curious type of crossing envelopes.

CONCLUSION:

In all, it was fun to explore with my students the many possibilities for bounding sinusoidal curves.  It was refreshing to have one student excited by just playing with the curves to see what else we could find for no other reason than just to enjoy the beauty of these periodic curves.  As I reflected on the overall process, I was even more delighted to discover the infinite spectrum of envelopes modeled above on Desmos.

I hope you’ve found something cool here for yourself.

## From a Square to Ratios to a System of Equations

Here’s another ratio problem from @Five_Triangles, this time involving triangle areas bounded by a square.

Don’t read further until you’ve tried this for yourself. It’s a fun problem that, at least from my experience, doesn’t end up where or how I thought it would.

INITIAL THOUGHTS

I see two big challenges here.

First, the missing location of point P is especially interesting, but is also likely to be quite vexing for many students. This led me to the first twist I found in the problem: the introduction of multiple variables and a coordinate system. Without some problem-solving experience, I don’t see that as an intuitive step for most middle school students. Please don’t interpret this as a knock on this problem, I’m simply agreeing with @Five_Triangle’s assessment that this problem is likely to be challenging for middle school students.

The second challenge I found emerged from the introduction the coordinate system: an underlying 2×2 system of equations. There are multiple ways to tackle a solution to a linear system, but this strikes me as yet another high hurdle for younger students.

Finally, I’m a bit surprised by my current brain block on multiple approaches for this problem. I suspect I’m blinded here by my algebraic bias in problem solving; surely there are approaches that don’t require this. I’d love to hear any other possibilities.

POINT P VARIES

Because I was given properties of point P and not its location, the easiest approach I could see was to position the square on the xy-plane with point B at the origin, $\overline{AB}$ along the y-axis, and $\overline{BC}$ along the x-axis. That gave my point P coordinates (x,y) for some unknown values of x & y.

The helpful part of this orientation is that the x & y coordinates of P are automatically the altitudes of $\Delta ABP$ and $\Delta BCP$, respectively. The altitudes of the other two triangles are determined through subtraction.

AREA RATIOS BECOME A LINEAR SYSTEM

From here, I used the given ratios to establish one equation in terms of x & y.

$\displaystyle \frac{\Delta ABP}{\Delta DAP} = \frac{\frac{1}{2}*12*x}{\frac{1}{2}*12*(12-y)} = \frac{3}{4}$

Of course, since all four triangles have the same base lengths, the given area ratios are arithmetically equivalent to corresponding height ratios.  I used that to write a second equation.

$\displaystyle \frac{\Delta BCP}{\Delta CDP} = \frac{y}{12-x} = \frac{1}{3}$

Simplifying terms and clearing denominators leads to $4x=36-3y$ and $3y=12-x$, respectively.

A VERY INTERESTING insight at this point is that there is an infinite number of locations within the square at which each ratio is true.  Specifically, the $\Delta ABP : \Delta DAP = 3:4$ ratio is true everywhere along the line 4x=36-3y.  This problem constrains us to only the points within the square with vertices (0,0), (12,0), (12,12), and (0,12), but setting that aside, anywhere along the line 4x=36-3y would satisfy the first constraint.  The same is true for the second line and constraint.

I think it would be very interesting for students to construct this on dynamic geometry software (e.g., GeoGebra or the TI-Nspire) and see the ratio remain constant everywhere along either line even though the triangle areas vary throughout.

Together, these lines form a 2×2 system of linear equations with the solution to both ratios being the intersection point of the two lines.  There are lots of ways to do this; I wonder how a typical 6th grader would tackle them. Assuming they have the algebraic expertise, I’d have work them by hand and confirm with a CAS.

The question asks for the area of $\Delta ABP = \frac{1}{2}*12*x = 6*8 = 48$.

PROBLEM VARIATIONS

Just two extensions this time.  Other suggestions are welcome.

1. What’s the ratio of the area of $\Delta BCP : \Delta DAP$ at the point P that satisfies both ratios??
It’s not 1:4 as an errant student might think from an errant application of the transitive property to the given ratios.  Can you show that it’s actually 1:8?
2. If a random point is chosen within the square, is that point more likely to satisfy the area ratio of $\Delta ABP : \Delta DAP$ or the ratio of $\Delta BCP : \Delta CDP$?
The first ratio is satisfied by the line 4x=36-3y which intersects the square on the segment between (9,0) and (0,12).  At the latter point, both triangles are degenerate with area 0.  The second ratio’s line intersects the square between (12,0) and (0,4).  As the first segment is longer (how would a middle schooler prove that?), it is more likely that a randomly chosen point would satisfy the $\Delta ABP : \Delta DAP$  ratio.  This would be a challenging probability problem, methinks.

FURTHER EXTENSIONS?

What other possibilities do you see either for a solution to the original problem or an extension?

## Party Ratios

I find LOTS of great middle school problems from @Five_Triangles on Twitter.  Their post two days ago was no exception.

The problem requires a little stamina, but can be approached many ways–two excellent criteria for worthy student explorations.  That it has some solid extensions makes it even better.  Following are a few different solution approaches some colleagues and I created.

INITIAL THOUGHTS, VISUAL ORGANIZATION, & A SOLUTION

The most challenging part of this problem is data organization.  My first thoughts were for a 2-circle Venn Diagram–one for gender and one for age.  And these types of Venn Diagrams are often more easily understood, in my experience, in 2×2 Table form with extra spaces for totals.  Here’s what I set up initially.

The ratio of Women:Girls was 11:4, so the 24 girls meant each “unit” in this ratio accounted for 24/4=6 people.  That gave 11*6=66 women and 66+24=90 females.

At this point, my experience working with algebraic problems tempted me to overthink the situation.  I was tempted to let B represent the unknown number of boys and set up some equations to solve.  Knowing that most 6th graders would not think about variables, I held back that instinct in an attempt to discover what a less-experienced mind might try. I present my initial algebra solution below.

The 5:3 Male:Female ratio told me that each “gender unit” represented 90/3=30 people.  That meant there were 5*30=150 men and 240 total people at the party.

Then, the 4:1 Adult:Children ratio showed how to age-divide every group of 5 partygoers.  With 240/5=48 such groups, there were 48 children and 4*48=192 adults.  Subtracting the already known 66 women gave the requested answer:  192-66=126 men.

While this Venn Diagram/Table approach made sense to me, I was concerned that it was a moderately sophisticated and not quite intuitive problem-solving technique for younger middle school students.

WHAT WOULD A MIDDLE SCHOOLER THINK?

A middle school teaching colleague, Becky, offered a different solution I could see students creating.

Completely independently, she solved the problem in exactly the same order I did using ratio tables to manage the scaling at each step instead of my “unit ratios”.  I liked her visual representation of the 4:1 Adults:Children ratio to find the number of adults, which gave the requested number of men.  I suspect many more students would implicitly or explicitly use some chunking strategies like the visual representation to work the ratios.

WHY HAVE JUST ONE SOLUTION?

Math problems involving ratios can usually be opened up to allow multiple, or even an infinite number of solutions.  This leads to some interesting problem extensions if you eliminate the “24 girls” restriction.  Here are a few examples and sample solutions.

What is the least number of partygoers?

For this problem, notice from the table above that all of the values have a common factor of 6.  Dividing the total partygoers by this reveals that 240/6=40 is the least number.  Any multiple of this number is also a legitimate solution.

Interestingly, the 11:4 Women:Girls ratio becomes explicitly obvious when you scale the table down to its least common value.

My former student and now colleague, Teddy, arrived at this value another way.  Paraphrasing, he noted that the 5:3 Male:Female ratio meant any valid total had to be a multiple of 5+3=8.  Likewise, the 4:1 Adult:Child ratio requires totals to be multiples of 4+1=5.  And the LCM of 8 & 5 is 40, the same value found in the preceding paragraph.

What do all total partygoer numbers have in common?

As explained above, any multiple of 40 is a legitimate number of partygoers.

If the venue could support no more than 500 attendees, what is the maximum number of women attending?

12*40=480 is the greatest multiple of 40 below 500.  Because 480 is double the initial problem’s total, 66*2=132 is the maximum number of women.

Note that this can be rephrased to accommodate any other gender/age/total target.

Under the given conditions, will the number of boys and girls at the party ever be identical?

As with all ratio problems, larger values are always multiples of the least common solution.  That means the number of boys and girls will always be identical or always be different.  From above, you can deduce that the numbers of boys and girls at the party under the given conditions will both be multiples of 4.

What variations can you and/or your students create?

RESOLVING THE INITIAL ALGEBRA

Now to the solution variation I was initially inclined to produce.  After initially determining 66 women from the given 24 girls, let B be the unknown number of boys.  That gives B+24 children.  It was given that adults are 4 times as numerous as children making the number of adults 4(B+24)=4B+96.  Subtracting the known 66 women leaves 4B+30 men.  Compiling all of this gives

The 5:3 Male:Female ratio means $\displaystyle \frac{5}{3} = \frac{5B+30}{90} \longrightarrow B=24$, the same result as earlier.

ALGEBRA OVERKILL

Winding through all of that algebra ultimately isn’t that computationally difficult, but it certainly is more than typical 6th graders could handle.

But the problem could be generalized even further, as Teddy shared with me.  If the entire table were written in variables with W=number of women, M=men, G=girls, and B=boys, the given ratios in the problem would lead to a reasonably straightforward 4×4 system of equations.  If you understand enough to write all of those equations, I’m certain you could solve them, so I’d feel confident allowing a CAS to do that for me.  My TI-Nspire gives this.

And that certainly isn’t work you’d expect from any 6th grader.

CONCLUSION

Given that the 11:4 Women:Girls ratio was the only “internal” ratio, it was apparent in retrospect that all solutions except the 4×4 system approach had to find the female values first.  There are still several ways to resolve the problem, but I found it interesting that while there was no “direct route”, every reasonable solution started with the same steps.

Thanks to colleagues Teddy S & Becky M for sharing their solution proposals.

## Unanticipated Proof Before Algebra

I was talking with one of our 5th graders, S,  last week about the difference between showing a few examples of numerical computations and developing a way to know something was true no matter what numbers were chosen.  I hadn’t started our conversation thinking about introducing proof.  Once we turned in that direction, I anticipated scaffolding him in a completely different direction, but S went his own way and reinforced for me the importance of listening and giving students the encouragement and room to build their own reasoning.

SETUP:  S had been telling me that he “knew” the product of an even number with any other number would always be even, while the product of any two odds was always odd.  He demonstrated this by showing lots of particular products, but I asked him if he was sure that it was still true if I were to pick some numbers he hadn’t used yet.  He was.

Then I asked him how many numbers were possible to use.  He promptly replied “infinite” at which point he finally started to see the difficulty with demonstrating that every product worked.  “We don’t have enough time” to do all that, he said.  Finally, I had maneuvered him to perhaps his first ever realization for the need for proof.

ANTICIPATION:  But S knew nothing of formal algebra.  From my experiences with younger students sans algebra, I thought I would eventually need to help him translate his numerical problem into a geometric one.  But this story is about S’s reasoning, not mine.

INSIGHT:  I asked S how he would handle any numbers I asked him to multiply to prove his claims, even if I gave him some ridiculously large ones.  “It’s really not as hard as that,” S told me.  He quickly scribbled

on his paper and covered up all but the one’s digit.  “You see,” he said, “all that matters is the units.  You can make the number as big as you want and I just need to look at the last digit.”  Without using this language, S was venturing into an even-odd proof via modular arithmetic.

With some more thought, he reasoned that he would focus on just the units digit through repeated multiples and see what happened.

FIFTH GRADE PROOF:  S’s math class is currently working through a multiplication unit in our 5th grade Bridges curriculum, so he was already in the mindset of multiples.  Since he said only the units digit mattered, he decided he could start with any even number and look at all of its multiples.  That is, he could keep adding the number to itself and see what happened.  As shown below, he first chose 32 and found the next four multiples, 64, 96, 128, and 160.  After that, S said the very next number in the list would end in a 2 and the loop would start all over again.

He stopped talking for several seconds, and then he smiled.  “I don’t have to look at every multiple of 32.  Any multiple will end up somewhere in my cycle and I’ve already shown that every number in this cycle is even.  Every multiple of 32 must be even!”  It was a pretty powerful moment.  Since he only needed to see the last digit, and any number ending in 2 would just add 2s to the units, this cycle now represented every number ending in 2 in the universe.  The last line above was S’s use of 1002 to show that the same cycling happened for another “2 number.”

DIFFERENT KINDS OF CYCLES:  So could he use this for all multiples of even numbers?  His next try was an “8 number.”

After five multiples of 18, he achieved the same cycling.  Even cooler, he noticed that the cycle for “8 numbers” was the 2 number” cycle backwards.

Also note that after S completed his 2s and 8s lists, he used only single digit seed numbers as the bigger starting numbers only complicated his examples.  He was on a roll now.

I asked him how the “4 number” cycle was related.  He noticed that the 4s used every other number in the “2 number” cycle.  It was like skip counting, he said.  Another lightbulb went off.

“And that’s because 4 is twice 2, so I just take every 2nd multiple in the first cycle!”  He quickly scratched out a “6 number” example.

This, too, cycled, but more importantly, because 6 is thrice 2, he said that was why this list used every 3rd number in the “2 number” cycle.  In that way, every even number multiple list was the same as the “2 number” list, you just skip-counted by different steps on your way through the list.

When I asked how he could get all the numbers in such a short list when he was counting by 3s, S said it wasn’t a problem at all.  Since it cycled, whenever you got to the end of a list, just go back to the beginning and keep counting.  We didn’t touch it last week, but he had opened the door to modular arithmetic.

I won’t show them here, but his “0 number” list always ended in 0s.  “This one isn’t very interesting,” he said.  I smiled.

ODDS:  It took a little more thought to start his odd number proof, because every other multiple was even.  After he recognized these as even numbers, S decided to list every other multiple as shown with his “1 number” and “3 number” lists.

As with the evens, the odd number lists could all be seen as skip-counted versions of each other.  Also, the 1s and 9s were written backwards from each other, and so were the 3s and 7s.  “5 number” lists were declared to be as boring as “0 numbers”.  Not only did the odds ultimately end up cycling essentially the same as the evens, but they had the same sort of underlying relationships.

CONCLUSION:  At this point, S declared that since he had shown every possible case for evens and odds, then he had shown that any multiple of an even number was always even, and any odd multiple of an odd number was odd.  And he knew this because no matter how far down the list he went, eventually any multiple had to end up someplace in his cycles.  At that point I reminded S of his earlier claim that there was an infinite number of even and odd numbers.  When he realized that he had just shown a case-by-case reason for more numbers than he could ever demonstrate by hand, he sat back in his chair, exclaiming, “Whoa!  That’s cool!”

It’s not a formal mathematical proof, and when S learns some algebra, he’ll be able to accomplish his cases far more efficiently, but this was an unexpectedly nice and perfectly legitimate numerical proof of even and odd multiples for an elementary student.

## Mistakes are Good

Confession #1:  My answers on my last post were WRONG.

I briefly thought about taking that post down, but discarded that idea when I thought about the reality that almost all published mathematics is polished, cleaned, and optimized.  Many students struggle with mathematics under the misconception that their first attempts at any topic should be as polished as what they read in published sources.

While not precisely from the same perspective, Dan Teague recently wrote an excellent, short piece of advice to new teachers on NCTM’s ‘blog entitled Demonstrating Competence by Making Mistakes.  I argue Dan’s advice actually applies to all teachers, so in the spirit of showing how to stick with a problem and not just walking away saying “I was wrong”, I’m going to keep my original post up, add an advisory note at the start about the error, and show below how I corrected my error.

Confession #2:  My approach was a much longer and far less elegant solution than the identical approaches offered by a comment by “P” on my last post and the solution offered on FiveThirtyEight.  Rather than just accepting the alternative solution, as too many students are wont to do, I acknowledged the more efficient approach of others before proceeding to find a way to get the answer through my initial idea.

I’ll also admit that I didn’t immediately see the simple approach to the answer and rushed my post in the time I had available to get it up before the answer went live on FiveThirtyEight.

GENERAL STRATEGY and GOALS:

1-Use a PDF:  The original FiveThirtyEight post asked for the expected time before the siblings simultaneously finished their tasks.  I interpreted this as expected value, and I knew how to compute the expected value of a pdf of a random variable.  All I needed was the potential wait times, t, and their corresponding probabilities.  My approach was solid, but a few of my computations were off.

2-Use Self-Similarity:  I don’t see many people employing the self-similarity tactic I used in my initial solution.  Resolving my initial solution would allow me to continue using what I consider a pretty elegant strategy for handling cumbersome infinite sums.

A CORRECTED SOLUTION:

Stage 1:  My table for the distribution of initial choices was correct, as were my conclusions about the probability and expected time if they chose the same initial app.

My first mistake was in my calculation of the expected time if they did not choose the same initial app.  The 20 numbers in blue above represent that sample space.  Notice that there are 8 times where one sibling chose a 5-minute app, leaving 6 other times where one sibling chose a 4-minute app while the other chose something shorter.  Similarly, there are 4 choices of an at most 3-minute app, and 2 choices of an at most 2-minute app.  So the expected length of time spent by the longer app if the same was not chosen for both is

$E(Round1) = \frac{1}{20}*(8*5+6*4+4*3+2*2)=4$ minutes,

a notably longer time than I initially reported.

For the initial app choice, there is a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance they choose the same app for an average time of 3 minutes, and a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance they choose different apps for an average time of 4 minutes.

Stage 2:  My biggest error was a rushed assumption that all of the entries I gave in the Round 2 table were equally likely.  That is clearly false as you can see from Table 1 above.  There are only two instances of a time difference of 4, while there are eight instances of a time difference of 1.  A correct solution using my approach needs to account for these varied probabilities.  Here is a revised version of Table 2 with these probabilities included.

Conveniently–as I had noted without full realization in my last post–the revised Table 2 still shows the distribution for the 2nd and all future potential rounds until the siblings finally align, including the probabilities.  This proved to be a critical feature of the problem.

Another oversight was not fully recognizing which events would contribute to increasing the time before parity.  The yellow highlighted cells in Table 2 are those for which the next app choice was longer than the current time difference, and any of these would increase the length of a trial.

I was initially correct in concluding there was a $\frac{1}{5}$ probability of the second app choice achieving a simultaneous finish and that this would not result in any additional total time.  I missed the fact that the six non-highlighted values also did not result in additional time and that there was a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of this happening.

That leaves a $\frac{3}{5}$ chance of the trial time extending by selecting one of the highlighted events.  If that happens, the expected time the trial would continue is

$\displaystyle \frac{4*4+(4+3)*3+(4+3+2)*2+(4+3+2+1)*1}{4+(4+3)+(4+3+2)+(4+3+2+1)}=\frac{13}{6}$ minutes.

Iterating:  So now I recognized there were 3 potential outcomes at Stage 2–a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of matching and ending, a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of not matching but not adding time, and a $\frac{3}{5}$ chance of not matching and adding an average $\frac{13}{6}$ minutes.  Conveniently, the last two possibilities still combined to recreate perfectly the outcomes and probabilities of the original Stage 2, creating a self-similar, pseudo-fractal situation.  Here’s the revised flowchart for time.

Invoking the similarity, if there were T minutes remaining after arriving at Stage 2, then there was a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of adding 0 minutes, a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of remaining at T minutes, and a $\frac{3}{5}$ chance of adding $\frac{13}{6}$ minutes–that is being at $T+\frac{13}{6}$ minutes.  Equating all of this allows me to solve for T.

$T=\frac{1}{5}*0+\frac{1}{5}*T+\frac{3}{5}*\left( T+\frac{13}{6} \right) \longrightarrow T=6.5$ minutes

Time Solution:  As noted above, at the start, there was a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of immediately matching with an average 3 minutes, and there was a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance of not matching while using an average 4 minutes.  I just showed that from this latter stage, one would expect to need to use an additional mean 6.5 minutes for the siblings to end simultaneously, for a mean total of 10.5 minutes.  That means the overall expected time spent is

Total Expected Time $=\frac{1}{5}*3 + \frac{4}{5}*10.5 = 9$ minutes.

Number of Rounds Solution:  My initial computation of the number of rounds was actually correct–despite the comment from “P” in my last post–but I think the explanation could have been clearer.  I’ll try again.

One round is obviously required for the first choice, and in the $\frac{4}{5}$ chance the siblings don’t match, let N be the average number of rounds remaining.  In Stage 2, there’s a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance the trial will end with the next choice, and a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance there will still be N rounds remaining.  This second situation is correct because both the no time added and time added possibilities combine to reset Table 2 with a combined probability of $\frac{4}{5}$.  As before, I invoke self-similarity to find N.

$N = \frac{1}{5}*1 + \frac{4}{5}*N \longrightarrow N=5$

Therefore, the expected number of rounds is $\frac{1}{5}*1 + \frac{4}{5}*5 = 4.2$ rounds.

It would be cool if someone could confirm this prediction by simulation.

CONCLUSION:

I corrected my work and found the exact solution proposed by others and simulated by Steve!   Even better, I have shown my approach works and, while notably less elegant, one could solve this expected value problem by invoking the definition of expected value.

Best of all, I learned from a mistake and didn’t give up on a problem.  Now that’s the real lesson I hope all of my students get.

Happy New Year, everyone!

## Great Probability Problems

UPDATE:  Unfortunately, there are a couple errors in my computations below that I found after this post went live.  In my next post, Mistakes are Good, I fix those errors and reflect on the process of learning from them.

ORIGINAL POST:

A post last week to the AP Statistics Teacher Community by David Bock alerted me to the new weekly Puzzler by Nate Silver’s new Web site, http://fivethirtyeight.com/.  As David noted, with their focus on probability, this new feature offers some great possibilities for AP Statistics probability and simulation.

I describe below FiveThirtyEight’s first three Puzzlers along with a potential solution to the last one.  If you’re searching for some great problems for your classes or challenges for some, try these out!

THE FIRST THREE PUZZLERS:

The first Puzzler asked a variation on a great engineering question:

You work for a tech firm developing the newest smartphone that supposedly can survive falls from great heights. Your firm wants to advertise the maximum height from which the phone can be dropped without breaking.

You are given two of the smartphones and access to a 100-story tower from which you can drop either phone from whatever story you want. If it doesn’t break when it falls, you can retrieve it and use it for future drops. But if it breaks, you don’t get a replacement phone.

Using the two phones, what is the minimum number of drops you need to ensure that you can determine exactly the highest story from which a dropped phone does not break? (Assume you know that it breaks when dropped from the very top.) What if, instead, the tower were 1,000 stories high?

The second Puzzler investigated random geyser eruptions:

You arrive at the beautiful Three Geysers National Park. You read a placard explaining that the three eponymous geysers — creatively named A, B and C — erupt at intervals of precisely two hours, four hours and six hours, respectively. However, you just got there, so you have no idea how the three eruptions are staggered. Assuming they each started erupting at some independently random point in history, what are the probabilities that A, B and C, respectively, will be the first to erupt after your arrival?

Both very cool problems with solutions on the FiveThirtyEight site.  The current Puzzler talked about siblings playing with new phone apps.

SOLVING THE CURRENT PUZZLER:

Before I started, I saw Nick Brown‘s interesting Tweet of his simulation.

If Nick’s correct, it looks like a mode of 5 minutes and an understandable right skew.  I approached the solution by first considering the distribution of initial random app choices.

There is a $\displaystyle \frac{5}{25}$ chance the siblings choose the same app and head to dinner after the first round.  The expected length of that round is $\frac{1}{5} \cdot \left( 1+2=3=4+5 \right) = 3$ minutes.

That means there is a $\displaystyle \frac{4}{5}$ chance different length apps are chosen with time differences between 1 and 4 minutes.  In the case of unequal apps, the average time spent before the shorter app finishes is $\frac{1}{25} \cdot \left( 8*1+6*2+4*3+2*4 \right) = 1.6$ minutes.

It doesn’t matter which sibling chose the shorter app.  That sibling chooses next with distribution as follows.

While the distributions are different, conveniently, there is still a time difference between 1 and 4 minutes when the total times aren’t equal.  That means the second table shows the distribution for the 2nd and all future potential rounds until the siblings finally align.  While this problem has the potential to extend for quite some time, this adds a nice pseudo-fractal self-similarity to the scenario.

As noted, there is a $\displaystyle \frac{4}{20}=\frac{1}{5}$ chance they complete their apps on any round after the first, and this would not add any additional time to the total as the sibling making the choice at this time would have initially chosen the shorter total app time(s).  Each round after the first will take an expected time of $\frac{1}{20} \cdot \left( 7*1+5*2+3*3+1*4 \right) = 1.5$ minutes.

The only remaining question is the expected number of rounds of app choices the siblings will take if they don’t align on their first choice.  This is where I invoked self-similarity.

In the initial choice there was a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance one sibling would take an average 1.6 minutes using a shorter app than the other.  From there, some unknown average N choices remain.  There is a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance the choosing sibling ends the experiment with no additional time, and a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance s/he takes an average 1.5 minutes to end up back at the Table 2 distribution, still needing an average N choices to finish the experiment (the pseudo-fractal self-similarity connection).  All of this is simulated in the flowchart below.

Recognizing the self-similarity allows me to solve for N.

$\displaystyle N = \frac{1}{5} \cdot 1 + \frac{4}{5} \cdot N \longrightarrow N=5$

Number of Rounds – Starting from the beginning, there is a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of ending in 1 round and a $\frac{4}{5}$ chance of ending in an average 5 rounds, so the expected number of rounds of app choices before the siblings simultaneously end is

$\frac{1}{5} *1 + \frac{4}{5}*5=4.2$ rounds

Time until Eating – In the first choice, there is a $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of ending in 3 minutes.  If that doesn’t happen, there is a subsequent $\frac{1}{5}$ chance of ending with the second choice with no additional time.  If neither of those events happen, there will be 1.6 minutes on the first choice plus an average 5 more rounds, each taking an average 1.5 minutes, for a total average $1.6+5*1.5=9.1$ minutes.  So the total average time until both siblings finish simultaneously will be

$\frac{1}{5}*3+\frac{4}{5}*9.1 = 7.88$ minutes

CONCLUSION:

My 7.88 minute mean is reasonably to the right of Nick’s 5 minute mode shown above.  We’ll see tomorrow if I match the FiveThirtyEight solution.

Anyone else want to give it a go?  I’d love to hear other approaches.