Monday, March 9, 2009

What Would a Spectator Friendly Math Competition Look Like?

John and Steve have given me the challenge of creating a math competition that is actually fun to watch. There are tons of competitions out there. Rob runs one every year at Tunxis. However, almost all of these involve students sitting at a desk solving problems. What would a spectator friendly math competition look like? I have been thinking in two directions on this.

1) Taking math problems and making them physical. Classic bucket problems could be fun to watch if you took away paper and pencil and gave competitors actual buckets. (Think Die Hard with a Vengeance minus the bomb.) Or, here's a pack of M&M's, add these two numbers in base 6. Compass and protractor constructions would be interesting, particularly because hardly anyone knows how to do them anymore.

2) Structure the competition so that the audience can evaluate or judge the participants. Math contests are usually only judged for correctness and speed by experts. John mentioned the example of the poetry slam. How could this happen for math? Here are some ideas to get started with. Contestants solve a problem at home before the contest, come to the contest, and explain their solutions in 3 minutes or less. Then the audience judges them on the clarity/creativity of their explanations. Or, contestants prepare a 3 minute lecture/demonstration about math and the audience judges. Another wilder idea is to have them perform a creative task that doesn't have a correct answer. I use an enrichment activity in Math for Liberal Arts that might work. I have students create a poem using the power set structure on a set of words. The audience would definitely be able to evaluate this.

I'm not sure exactly what John and Steve had in mind for the bigger picture. I think they plan to have contests like this in all disciplines. They definitely gave me an interesting thought problem though.


Kate said...

Are you familiar with the 16th century Italian "math battles"? Apparently these dudes would THROW DOWN. Like if I thought of some hard problem that I had a solution for, I would send a letter to my mortal math enemy, challenging her to solve it. And then she would write me back with a problem of her devising, that she thought I couldn't solve! Then we would get together in front of an audience to decide who was more brilliant.

OK I am probably oversimplifying, but I think you should do THAT.

(There is a story in Journey Through Genius by William Dunham that explains how Cardano's solution to the cubic was first publicized this way.)

Unknown said...


I had no clue. I've heard of some pretty fierce rivalries, but I have never read about any "math battles". I'll start with your reference. Maybe I can engineer one. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I was googling Italian Math Battles and came up with this. This sounds promising!