I’m guessing this was about 5 years ago. I was at an all-day workshop when a high school math teacher, sitting next to me, asked about the PoW (from mathforum.org) that I assign to my students. I happened to have an extra copy in my backpack and gave it to her.

Dad’s Cookies [Problem #2959]Dad bakes some cookies. He eats one hot out of the oven and leaves the rest on the counter to cool. He goes outside to read.

Dave comes into the kitchen and finds the cookies. Since he is hungry, he eats half a dozen of them.

Then Kate wanders by, feeling rather hungry as well. She eats half as many as Dave did.

Jim and Eileen walk through next, each of them eats one third of the remaining cookies.

Hollis comes into the kitchen and eats half of the cookies that are left on the counter.

Last of all, Mom eats just one cookie.

Dad comes back inside, ready to pig out. “Hey!” he exclaims, “There is only one cookie left!”

How many cookies did Dad bake in all?

Maybe you’d like to work on this problem before reading on.

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The teacher started solving the problem. She was really into it, so much so that I felt she’d ignored much of what our presenter was presenting at the time. She ran out of paper and grabbed some more. She looked up from her papers at one point and said something that I interpreted as I-know-this-problem-is-not-that-hard-but-what-the-fuck.

It was now morning break.

She worked on it some more.

By lunch time, she asked, “Okay, how do you solve this?” I read the problem again and drew some boxes on top of the paper that she’d written on. (Inside the green.)

She knew I’d solved the problem with a few simple sketches because she understood the drawings and what they represented. I just really appreciated her perseverance.

I share this with you because a few nights ago I was at our local Math Teachers’ Circle where Joshua Zucker led us through some fantastic activities with Zome models. We were asked for the volume of various polyhedrons relative to one another. Our group really struggled on one of the shapes. We used formulas and equations only to get completely befuddled, and our work ended up looking like one of the papers above.

Over the years I’ve heard a few students tell me, “Mrs. Nguyen, my uncle is an engineer, and he can’t help me with the PoW.” Substitute uncle with another grown-up family member. Substitute engineer with another profession, including math teacher. I remember getting a note from one of my student’s tutor letting me know that I shouldn’t be giving 6th graders problems that he himself cannot solve. (The student’s parent fired him upon learning this.)

I like to think that my love of problem solving will rub off on my kids. I hope they will love the power of drawing rectangles as much I do. Or just a tiny little bit.