Pi Day: Proof that math nerds are fun!

Happy Pi Day, folks! I’m departing from the usual pi day talk of circles and desserts to discuss fun with algebra, just like I promised in yesterday’s blogiversary post.

You’ve probably seen this kind of “jedi mind trick” in a forwarded e-mail or a shared Facebook post:

Think of a number. Add 3. Multiply by 2. Square it. Subtract 36. Divide by 4. Divide by your original number. Subtract your original number.

Your answer is 6.

It’s nifty, but it’s more of a jedi math trick than a jedi mind trick.

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Simplifying life’s (story) problems

I’m 27 years old, and one of my favorite books of all time is still the children’s book Math Curse. (Actually, I recommend pretty much any book from this author/illustrator combo.) The basic premise is that, inspired by a teacher’s comment, a student starts seeing everything in his life as a math problem. These problems are integrated into the text, while the solutions are printed on the back cover.

When I first discovered the book, I was kind of spooked out by how much I related to it. My dad, who was an accounting major, is really big on math. I don’t even remember how young I was when he started finding opportunities to drill me on my skills at the grocery store (How much does each egg in the carton cost?), in the car (At this speed, how many minutes will it take to get to Seattle?), and pretty much everywhere else we went. Because of this, math has always been integrated (ha!) into my everyday life.

I was lucky. With all that practice and all those applications, the leap from basic arithmetic to story problems  wasn’t insurmountable for me. However, I know it wasn’t like that for everyone; I’ve seen countless students who can definitely do the arithmetic get thrown when they have to do the same calculation in the context of a story problem.

I’ve come up with a couple of basic strategies that can help, especially when working with fractions or decimals.

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