Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pythagorean auctions and other Pythagorean excitement for middle school teachers at Bard College next week!

As I said, why should students have all the fun?
Next Monday, I will be leading a session on Pythagorean auctions at the New York City Math Teachers Circle summer workshop for middle school mathteachers at Bard College.

The inspiration for running math auctions in my session came from an idea I first read about in the book Mathematical Circles (Russian Experience) by Dmitri Fomin, Sergey Genkin, and Ilia Itenberg. Further encouragement came from a very enthusiastic presentation by Anna Burago at MSRI's Great Circles 2009 conference. Anna has many years of experience with math circles, both as a student in her native St. Petersburg and now as a lead teacher for the Northwest Academy of Sciences math circle. Here is her description:
Mathematical Auction is an exciting team mathematical contest. It combines mathematics with the elements of gambling and psychological thriller. The game starts from a period of problem solving which is followed by a round of trading. The teams bid, scheme and strategize for the rights to present the solutions to the problems. Mathematical Auction is one of the favorite competitions in the Math Circles that I run.
As an economist, of course, I was intrigued by the idea of a mathematical auction, so I had to try the idea out in our math circle. Since Anna said that the auctions are especially popular with middle schoolers, we ran some math auctions at our Albany Area Math Circle middle school math circle meetings last spring--and they were indeed very well received by the students. I hope the teachers at next week's workshop will also enjoy using math auctions to explore some interesting Pythagorean mathematics.

Here are the rules for a Math Auction:

1) The auctioneer hands the teams a set of problems--about five or six problems is considered ideal. But the problems are a special kind--Russian math circle leaders call them "research problems" because they allow possibilities for partial solutions or intermediate answers which can gradually lead to a final result.

2) Teams are given a certain amount of time to work on the problems.

3) When that time is up, the auction begins. Each team starts with a certain amount of fictional currency at the outset of the auction. In honor of Pythagoras, we'll use drachmas as our fictional unit of currency in next week's workshop, so each team will have 1,000 drachmas to use in their bidding.

4) The teams then bid for the right to present a solution to each problem. The team that submits the highest bid in the initial round of the auction gets the right to present their solution. After they present their solution, the bidding reopens so that other teams who believe they can improve on that solution may do so. The team with the strongest solution to the problem wins the value of the problem. Bonus drachmas may be awarded for cool discoveries made alone the way.

The focus of the summer teacher workshop is the Pythagorean theorem, so all the problems we will be auctioning off next Monday afternoon will use that theorem in a variety of fascinating ways--many of the auction problems will connect to the presentations that will be given by other speakers later in the week.

Here is the list of workshop presentations scheduled at the Bard math teacher summer workshop next week:

Auctions of All Things Pythagorean: Spirals, Trees, Triples, Twins, Quads, Networks, and Outcastes, Mary O'Keeffe (Albany Area Math Circle)

Showing of The Theorem of Pythagoras (movie created by Tom Apostol's Project Mathematics! at Caltech with awesome animation from MacArthur "genius" prize winner Jim Blinn )

Primitive Pythagorean Triples Sheila Krilov (Hunter College High School teacher and MATHCOUNTS coach)

Heronian Triangles David Hankin (former chair of the AIME Committee and veteran teacher/math department chair Hunter College High School)

Showing of The Proof (movie about Andrew Wiles proof of Fermat's Last Theorem)

Pythagoras in Spherical and Hyperbolic Geometry, Jim & Maria Belk (Bard College faculty)

Eight Different Proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem Gary Rubinstein (Stuyvesant High School faculty)

Fermat n=4 and Some Interesting Open Problems in Number Theory Lauren Rose (Bard College faculty)

Primitive Pythagorean Triples via Unique Factorization John Cullinan (Bard College faculty)

Almost Pythagorean Triples, and Almost Isosceles Pythagorean Triples: Connecting to Pell's Equation, Japheth Wood (Bard College faculty)

All of this mathematical excitement (as well as music and film festivals) will take place on Bard's campus next week. The area near Bard, overlooking the Hudson River, is a spectacularly beautiful setting at this time of year (word has it that Chelsea Clinton will be getting married nearby shortly after the math circle teacher workshop ends!)

There may be still room for a few more math teachers to attend the workshop--and it is even possible to arrange for continuing education credit. Please pass the word along to any middle school math teachers you know who would enjoy this experience!