Its on these warm, spring days that some learners tend to start checking out. They recognize our typical reviewing and recirculating attempts to help students recapture some learning before the last tests and exams. But some of them learned the content the first time. Essentially, this time of year can bring with it a lot of down time for our students who learn the fastest.

That’s when I like to pull out my old college textbooks. I spoke before of the power of ungraded bonus problems. If interesting and placed properly, they can provide powerful opportunities for thinking simply for the sake of thinking. I like to give them a window into math that “doesn’t look like math.” After all, most of the content that K-12 mathematics includes has some commonalities that students get used to. They’ve gotten used to “what math looks like.”

Today, four groups got a problem that I adapted from one of my undergrad courses that I took at WMU with Dr. Ping Zhang who, along with Dr. Gary Chartrand co-authored this book which was the textbook for the course I took.

The problem is adapted from Example 1.1 from Chapter 1. It asks the students to create a schedule for 7 committees that share ten people. Now, the purpose of the problem in the book is to give a simple example of how a graph can be used to visualize a complex situation. Often the way a problem is mathematically modeled can change the intensity of the solution process.

The reason I like to give this problem (and problems detached from the K-12 curriculum in general) is that in May, to curious students, these problems tend to hit the perplexity button just in the right spot. In fact, all the students looked at the handout at first and were unimpressed. Until I asked them to read it… then, they seemed to just want to see what the answer looked like. As one student put it, “It seems really easy at first, then you get into it and it’s actually harder than we thought.”

Graph theory is about creating visual representations. I didn’t want to ruin their experience by pigeon-holing them into trying to represent this they way I knew they could. And given the time, that didn’t stop this group from creating a similar idea. Not with a graph, but they did use crayons.

To hear Kailey explain: “We just gave each person their own color. Then we knew we could have two committees meet at the same time if they didn’t have any colors in common.” That isn’t different thinking, really. Just a different representation.

I enjoy the conversations that come out it. No grade. Just doing math for the sake of thinking about something that’s interesting. It’s especially interesting to students like Katie who said, “Okay… I solved it, but how’s that math?”

Reference

*Introduction to Graph Theory* (2005) Chartrand, G., and Zhang, P., New York: McGraw Hill