Archive for the ‘Math Education’ Category.

The Hidden Agenda Revealed

Recently I asked my readers to look at the 1976 written math exam that was given to applicants wishing to study at the math department of Moscow State University. Now it’s time to reveal the hidden agenda. My readers noticed that problems 1, 2, and 3 were relatively simple, problem 4 was very hard, and problem 5 was extremely hard. It seems unfair and strange that problems of such different difficulty were worth the same. It is also suspicious that the difficult problems had no opportunity for partial credit. As a result of these characteristics of the exam, almost every applicant would get 3 points, the lowest passing score. The same situation persisted for many years in a row. Why would the best place to study math in Soviet Russia not differentiate the math abilities of its applicants?

In those years the math department of Moscow State University was infamous for its antisemitism and its efforts to exclude all Jewish students from the University. The strange structure of the exam accomplished three objectives toward that goal.

1. Protect the fast track. There was a fast track for students with a gold medal from their high school who got 5 points on the written exam. The structure of the exam guaranteed that very few students could solve all 5 problems. If by chance a Jewish student solved all 5 problems, it was not much work to find some minor stylistic mistake and not count the solution.

2. Avoid raising suspicion at the next exams. The second math entrance exam was oral. At such an exam different students would talk one-on-one with professors and would have to answer different questions. It was much easier to arrange difficult questions for undesirable students and fail all the Jewish students during the oral exam than during the written exam. But if many students with perfect scores on the written exam had failed the oral exam, it might have raised a lot of questions.

3. Protect appeals. Despite these gigantic efforts, there were cases when Jewish students with a failing score of 2 points were able to appeal and earn the minimum passing score of 3. If undesirable students managed to appeal all the exams, they would only get a half-passing grade at the end and would not be accepted because the department was allowed to choose from the many students that the exams guaranteed would have half-passing scores.

I have only heard about one faculty member who tried to publicly fight the written exam system. It was Vladimir Arnold, and I will tell the story some other time.


A Math Exam’s Hidden Agenda

In 1976 I was about to become a student in the math department at Moscow State University. As an IMO team member I was accepted without entrance exams, but all of my other classmates had to take the exams. There were four exams: written math, oral math, physics, and an essay.

The written math exam was the first, and here are the problems. I want my non-Russian readers to see if they notice anything peculiar about this exam. Can you explain what is peculiar, and what might be the hidden agenda?

Problem 1. Solve the equation


Problem 2. Solve the inequality


Problem 3. Consider a right triangle ABC with right angle C. Angle B is 30° and leg CA is equal to 1. Let D be the midpoint of the hypotenuse AB, so that CD is a median. Choose F on the segment BC so that the angle between the hypotenuse and the line DF is 15°. Find the area of CDF. Calculate its numeric value with 0.001 precision.

Problem 4. Three balls, two of which are the same size, are tangent to the plane P, as well as to each other. In addition, the base of a circular cone lies on the plane P, and its axis is perpendicular to the plane. All three balls touch the cone from the outside. Find the angle between a generatrix of the cone and the plane P, given that the triangle formed by the points of tangency of the balls and the plane has one angle equal to 150°.

Problem 5. Let r < s < t be real numbers. If you set y equal to any of the numbers r, s or t in the equation x2 − (9 − y)x + y2 − 9y + 15 = 0, then at least one of the other two numbers will be a root of the resulting quadratic equation. Prove that −1 < r < 1.

Let me describe some background to this exam. Applicants who solve fewer than two problems fail the exam and are immediately rejected. People who solve two or three problems are given 3 points. Four problems earn 4 points, and five problems earn 5 points.

If you still do not see the hidden agenda, here is another clue. People who get 5 points on the first exam and, in addition, have a gold medal from their high school (that means all As) are admitted right after the first exam. For the others, if they do not fail any of the exams, points are summed up with their GPAs to compute their scores. The so-called half-passing score is then calculated. Scores strictly higher than the half-passing score qualify applicants for admission. However, there are too many applicants for the available openings with at least the half-passing score. As a result only some people with exactly the half-passing score are accepted, at the discretion of the department.

Now my readers have enough information to figure out the hidden agenda behind that particular exam.


Good Math Research Projects for High School

by Pavel Etingof and Tanya Khovanova

We worked for several years with RSI where we supervised summer math research projects by high school students. Now, we’ve started an additional program at MIT’s math department called PRIMES, where local high school students do math research during the academic year. In this essay we would like to discuss what makes a good math research project for a high school student.

A doable project. The project should not be believed to be extremely difficult to yield at least results. It is very discouraging for an aspiring mathematician not to produce anything during their first project.

An accessible beginning. The student should be able to start doing something original soon after the start of the project. After all, they don’t come to us for coursework, but for research.

Flexibility. It is extremely important to offer them a project that is adjustable; it should go in many directions with many different potential kinds of results. Since we do not know the strength of incoming students in advance, it is useful to have in mind both easier and harder versions of the project.

Motivation. It is important for the project to be well motivated, which means related to other things that have been studied and known to be interesting, to research of other people, etc. Students get more excited when they see that other people are excited about their results.

A computer component. This is not a must for a good project. But modern mathematics involves a lot of computation and young students are better at it than many older professors. Such a project gives young students the opportunity to tackle something more senior people are interested in but might not have enough computer skills to solve. In addition, through computer experiments students get exposed to abstract notions (groups, rings, Lie algebras, representations, etc.) in a more “hands-on” way than when taking standard courses, and as a result are less scared of them.

A learning component. It is always good when a project exposes students to more advanced notions.

The student should like their project. This is very difficult to accomplish when projects are chosen in advance before we meet the students. However, we try to match them to great projects by using the descriptions they give of their interests on their applications. It goes without saying that mentors should like their project too.

Having stated the desired properties of a good project, let us move on to giving examples: bad projects and good projects. We start with a bad one:

Prove that the largest power of 2 that doesn’t contain 0 is 286.

The project satisfies only one requirement: it contains a computer component. Otherwise, it doesn’t have an accessible beginning. It is not very flexible: if the student succeeds, the long-standing conjecture will be proven; if s/he doesn’t, there is not much value in intermediate results. The question is not very interesting. The only motivation is that it has been open for a long time. Also, there is not much to learn. Though, almost any theoretical question can be made flexible. We can start with the question above and change its direction to make it more promising and enticing.

Another bad example is a project where the research happens after the programs are written. This is bad because it is difficult to estimate the programming abilities of incoming students. It doesn’t have an accessible beginning and there is no flexibility until the programming part is finished. If the student can’t finish the programming quickly, s/he will not have time to look at the results and produce conjectures. For example, almost any project in studying social networks may fall into this category:

Study an acquaintance graph for some epic movies or fiction, for example Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. In this graph people are vertices and two people are connected by an edge if they know each other. The project is to compare properties of such graphs to known properties of other social networks.

Though the networks in movies are much smaller than other networks that people study, the amount of programming might be substantial. This project can be a good project for a person with a flexible time frame or a person who is sure in advance that there will be enough time for him/her to look at the data.

Now on to an example of a good project. Lynnelle Ye and her mentor, Tirasan Khandhawit, chose to analyze the game of Chomp on graphs during RSI 2009.

Given a graph, on each turn a player can remove an edge or a vertex together with all adjacent edges. The player who doesn’t have a move loses. This game was previously solved for complete graphs and forest graphs, so the project was to analyze the game for other types of graphs.

It is clear how to analyze the game for any particular new graph. So that could be a starting point providing an accessible beginning. After that the next step could be to analyze other interesting sets of graphs. The flexibility is guaranteed by the fact that there are many sets of graphs that can be used. In addition, the project entails learning some graph theory and game theory. And the project has a computational component.

Lynnelle Ye successfully implemented this project and provided a complete analysis of complete n-partite graphs for arbitrary n and all bipartite graphs. She also gave partial results for odd-cycle pseudotrees. The paper is available at the arxiv. Not surprisingly, Lynelle got fourth place in the Intel Science Talent Search and second place in the Siemens Competition.


Two Planes Keep Flying

Two days ago I threw at my readers the following problem:

A plane takes off and goes east at a rate of 350 mph. At the same time, a second plane takes off from the same place and goes west at a rate of 400 mph. When will they be 2000 miles apart?

The purpose of throwing this problem was to discuss the nature of the implicit assumptions that we are asked to make when solving math problems, and the implicit assumptions we teach our children to make when we teach them to solve math problems. This is especially important for problems like this, that are phrased in terms of a situation in the real world. The real world is too complex to model all of; the great power of mathematics is that sufficiently idealized situations are predictable. But which idealizations are appropriate? How does one choose? How does one teach youngsters what to choose?

Before I get to the actual discussion, however, I want to re-throw this problem at my readers, in an effort to highlight what originally jumped out at me as being wrong with it.

Neglecting the effects of altitude, differential wind, acceleration, relativity, measurement error, finite size and non-superimposability of the planes, and the Earth’s deviations from perfect sphericity,

  1. Find how much time it takes them to become 2000 miles apart, assuming that the planes are starting from Boston and the distance is measured as
    1. a straight line in 3-space.
    2. the shortest surface distance.
  2. How far from the closest pole may the starting point be located, so that the answer to the problem is “never”? Solve separately for
    1. the 3D distance.
    2. the shortest surface distance.
  3. What portion of the Earth’s surface do the “never”-locations of the previous question occupy?
    1. under the 3D distance?
    2. under the shortest surface distance?

Hint: The easiest question is 2b.


Two Planes

I stumbled upon the following problem in Mathematics Teacher v.73 (September 1980):

A plane takes off and goes east at a rate of 350 mph. At the same time, a second plane takes off from the same place and goes west at a rate of 400 mph. When will they be 2000 miles apart?

Ooh, boy!

Question for my readers: explain my reaction.



I was teaching my students PIE, the Principle of Inclusion and Exclusion. This was the last lesson of 2010 and it seemed natural to have a party and bring some pie. It appears that the school has a new rule. If I want to bring any food to class, I need to submit a request that includes all food ingredients. The administrators send it to the parents asking them to sign a permission slip and then, if I receive all the slips back in time, I can bring pie to school. We had to study PIE without pie.

Our most important task as parents and teachers is to teach kids to make their own decisions. They are in high school; they know by now about their own allergies and diets; they should be able to avoid foods that might do them harm. I understand why schools create such rules, but we are treating the students like small children. We can’t protect them forever; they need to learn to protect themselves.

Next semester, we will study the mathematics of fair division. I will have to teach them how to cut a cake without a cake.


Problem Design for Multiple Choice Questions

I gave my students a problem from the 2002 AMC 10-A:

Tina randomly selects two distinct numbers from the set {1, 2, 3, 4, 5}, and Sergio randomly selects a number from the set {1, 2, …, 10}. The probability that Sergio’s number is larger than the sum of the two numbers chosen by Tina is: (A) 2/5, (B) 9/20, (C) 1/2, (D) 11/20, (E) 24/25.

Here is a solution that some of my students suggested:

On average Tina gets 6. The probability that Sergio gets more than 6 is 2/5.

This is a flawed solution with the right answer. Time and again I meet a problem at a competition where incorrect reasoning produces the right answer and is much faster, putting students who understand the problem at a disadvantage. This is a design flaw. The designers of multiple-choice problems should anticipate mistaken solutions such as the one above. A good designer would create a problem such that a mistaken solution leads to a wrong answer — one which has been included in the list of choices. Thus, a wrong solution would be punished rather than rewarded.

Readers: here are three challenges. First, to ponder what is the right solution. Second, to change parameters slightly so that the solution above doesn’t work. And lastly, the most interesting challenge is to explain why the solution above yielded the correct result.


Choices or No Choices

I am coaching my AMSA students for math competitions. Recently, I gave them the following problem from the 1964 MAML:

The difference of the squares of two odd numbers is always divisible by:
A) 3, B) 5, C) 6, D) 7, E) 8?

The fastest way to solve this problem is to check an example. If we choose 1 and 3 as two odd numbers, we see that the difference of their squares is 8, so the answer must be E. Unfortunately this solution doesn’t provide any useful insight; it is just a trivial calculation.

If we remove the choices, the problem immediately becomes more interesting. We can again plug in numbers 1 and 3 to see that the answer must be a factor of 8. But to really solve the problem, we need to do some reasoning. Suppose 2k + 1 is an odd integer. Its square can be written in the form 4n(n+1) + 1, from which you can see that every odd square has remainder 1 when divided by 8. A solution like this is a more profitable investment of your time. You understand what is going on. You master a method for solving many problems of this type. As a bonus, if students remember the conclusion, they can solve the competition problem above instantaneously.

This is why when I am teaching I often remove multiple choices from problems. To solve them, rough estimates and plugging numbers are not enough. To solve the problems the students really need to understand them. Frankly, some of the problems remain boring even if we remove the multiple choices, like this one from the 2009 AMC 10.

One can holds 12 ounces of soda. What is the minimum number of cans needed to provide a gallon (128 ounces) of soda?

It’s a shame that many math competitions do not reward deep analysis and big-picture understanding. They emphasize speed and accuracy. In such cases, plugging in numbers and rough estimates are useful skills, as I pointed out in my essay Solving Problems with Choices.

In addition, smart guessing can boost the score, but I already wrote about that, too, in How to Boost Your Guessing Accuracy During Tests and To Guess or Not to Guess?, as well as Metasolving AMC 8.

As the AMC 10 fast approaches, I am bracing myself for the necessity to include multiple choices once again, thereby training my students in mindless arithmetic.


How Early Can You Teach Math to Kids?

DodecahedronMany people ask me when is a good time to teach kids math. In my experience, it can never be too early. You just need to keep some order. Multiplication should be taught after addition, and negative numbers after subtraction. Kids should remember multiplication by heart at the age of seven. They can understand negative numbers as early as four.

In the picture I am explaining Platonic solids to four-month-old Eli, the son of my friends. His homework is to chew on a dodecahedron.



I am starting yet another part-time job as the Head Mentor at PRIMES, a new MIT research program for high schoolers. I am very excited about this program, for it will be valuable not only to kids who want to become researchers, but also to kids who just want to see what research is like. Kids who want to learn to think in a new way will also find it highly useful.

PRIMES is in many ways similar to RSI, which it augments and complements. There are also a lot of differences. Keep in mind that I am only comparing PRIMES to the math part of RSI, with which I was working as a coordinator for two years. I do not know how RSI handles other sciences.

Different time scale. RSI lasts six weeks; PRIMES will take about a year. I already wrote about some peoples’ skepticism towards RSI in my piece called “Fast Food Research?.” PRIMES creates a more natural pace for research.

Choices. Because of the time schedule at RSI, students get their project as soon as they start. Students who realize by the end of the second week that they do not like their project are at a disadvantage: if they do not change their project, they’re stuck with something that does not inspire them or is too difficult, and if they do change their project, they won’t have enough time to do a great job. At PRIMES students will have time to talk to the mentors before starting their project, so that they can participate in choosing their project. Depending on how it goes later, they’ll have time to try several different directions. I believe that the best research comes from the heart: students who have the time and opportunity to shape their choices will be more invested in their project.

Application process. At RSI, The Center for Excellence in Education reviews the applications. Even though they usually do a superb job at sending us great students, I believe it would be an advantage if mentors were able to influence the review process, for they might find even better matches to their projects. At PRIMES, the mentors will have this opportunity to review the applications.

Geography. RSI accepts students from all over the US and from some other countries. PRIMES can only accept local students — those who live close enough to visit MIT once a week for four months. Because of this restriction, PRIMES is recruiting from a smaller pool of students than RSI. But for local students it means that it will be easier to get accepted to PRIMES than to RSI.

Coaching. At RSI, students get a lot of coaching. I think that every student is in close contact with four adults. Two of them are from the math department — mentor and coordinator (that’s me!) — and two tutors from CEE. PRIMES will have less coaching. A student will have a mentor and me, the head mentor. In addition, mentors might arrange for students to talk to the professors who originated their projects.

Immersion. RSI students are physically present. They are housed at MIT with the expectation that they completely devote their time to their research. Students at PRIMES will be integrating their research into the rest of their lives and their commitments. That will require good organizational skills and a lot of self-discipline. RSI students have discipline imposed on them by their situation — which may be an advantage to them.

Olympiads. While they are at RSI, students can’t go to IMO or other summer activities. This is why many strong Olympiad students choose not to go to RSI, or they turn down an RSI acceptance if in the meantime they have gotten on to an Olympic team. At PRIMES you can do both. It is possible to go to an Olympiad, in addition to writing a paper.

Grade. RSI students have to be juniors. There are no grade limitations for PRIMES. Thus, it is possible to go to PRIMES in one’s senior year. In this case, it may be too late to use PRIMES on college applications, but it is perfectly fine for the sake of research itself. Or it might be possible to go to PRIMES as a sophomore, and then apply for RSI the next year. This will strengthen the student’s application for RSI.

RSI is well-established and has proven itself. PRIMES is new and hopefully will offer young mathematicians additional opportunities to try research.

I think that the American system of education creates a lot of pressure for teachers to drill their students for standardized tests and multiple choice questions. This blocks creative thinking. Every program like PRIMES is very good for unleashing students’ creativity and contributing to the development of the future thinkers of American society.