Why Wait for Calculus?

(I just had my very best lesson yesterday, on a Friday, thank you. I feel almost brilliant right now. And I only feel like this once every 47 years, so please stay and read this post!)

My own kids tell me they will stock up their dorm rooms and apartments with junk food and soda when they move out to make up for these years of deprivation. (And this is supposed to make me feel bad.) So when I intentionally bring home a snack, like this bag of kettle corn, I usually find it empty within 24 hours. But seeing the empty bag made me think of a volume activity that I could do with my 6th graders with all these other bags of Orville Redenbacher's popcorn.

But the activity I had in mind — maximizing the volume of a box — is commonly done in a calculus class. These are my 6th grade babies. But didn't we do okay with approximating the volume of a torus via my donut lesson? So, why can't we do this too? I have to get rid of the popcorn.

I randomly assigned the kids in pairs, gave each pair two sheets of white copy paper. I told them to use one paper at a time to make a box — the goal is to make the box as big as possible so it'll hold the most popcorn. But the box must be made simply like this: cut off 4 corners from the the paper, then fold up the sides and tape them together. I used a half-sheet (so they couldn't duplicate mine) to demonstrate what I meant.

They quickly went to work. A few students were NOT cutting off square corners, so the top edges of the sides didn't line up. Two groups folded in their papers, in addition to cutting off corners, so they had to re-do.

Ryan and Annamaria wanted to make a shallow box. Ryan said, "... it doesn't matter how high it is."

Rapha and Cristian made the biggest corner cuts that I saw in the first round.

Mike's and Roy's first box was the shallowest in the class, but they changed their mind for their second box.

**********

With 10 minutes left in our first hour together, I asked the kids to measure the box and find the volume. They had no trouble with this since we did the donut. They recorded the volume inside each box, and I tacked them on the board. (The butter seeped through in few of the boxes.)

Well, that was fun. I pointed out that two of the bigger boxes were over 1,000 cubic centimeters. The bell rang. I said, "We'll wrap up this afternoon."

**********

I didn't know what I was going to do to "wrap up" the lesson. The microwave actually overheated — my room stank of greasy popcorn.

There was a confidence in me, however, that the kids would help me figure out how/where this lesson could go next.

I began the afternoon hour by going over what they'd learned in the morning. They said:

• The four corners must be of the same size. (I never told them this in my instruction.)
• Each corner must be a square. (I didn't tell them this either. Not everyone was convinced of this, so I cut non-square corners to show them.)
• There was a limit to how big the square could be. (I loved this! And this made me ask, "Is there a minimum to the size of the square?" Their eyes squinted, almost as if they were trying to "see" how small these corner squares could get. Or it was just my imagination. One kid said, "No. Technically, no.")
• The volume numbers that people wrote down could be wrong.

By then they understood the different boxes and their volumes depended on the size of the corner squares that would get cut off. We focused on this. I asked them to draw a 10 x 12 rectangle in their math journal. We removed 1 x 1 corners from this rectangle and found the volume. I guided them through the next 2 x 2 corners. They continued on their own.

Then I gave each kid another white piece of copy paper. We measured the length and width of the paper and agreed that the paper was 28 cm x 21.5 cm. I asked them to build a systematic table like the one they just did in their journal. I said something like this, "Because you now know how to figure out the volume without actually cutting and making the boxes, see if you could figure out what size square the corners should be to maximize volume."

I saw kids high-fiving each other, "The corner has to be 4 by 4!" Rapha and Cristian beamed after congratulating each other, "That was one of the boxes we made!"

We ended class with that. I swore I felt myself tearing up.

**********

On Monday we'll play around with this applet

And we'll ask Wolfram Alpha to take the first derivative of the volume for us. (I'm pretty sure the class could write this equation V = (28-2x)(21.5-2x)(x) for me to enter into WA.) Well, I actually just did it, and WA gives the side of our corner square as approximately 4.01965. My kids got 4 — pretty damn good for 6th grade brute-force math.

Now that I'm writing this, however, I am really most proud of how well the kids had worked together. I randomly paired them up — a handful of the pairs were like the odd couples: high/low, shy/outgoing, squirrelly/quiet, jock/nerd, princess/cowboy. There was not a whisper of whine when their names were called to pair up. How did I get so lucky?

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• May 19, 2012 4:21 AM Ms. Cookie wrote:
Sounds like it was great fun and math-useful!
1. May 19, 2012 11:23 AM fawnnguyen wrote:
A lot of greasy fingers too! Thanks for your comment, Ms. Cookie.
• May 19, 2012 4:58 AM Nathan Kraft wrote:
I absolutely love this lesson. It's great that the kids have some incentive to create a box with the most volume - they get more popcorn! I will certainly share this with the staff in my school.
1. May 19, 2012 11:26 AM fawnnguyen wrote:
Thanks, Nathan! I'm flattered that you'll share.
• May 19, 2012 5:23 AM Sue VanHattum wrote:
Nice. I think I'll steal this for my college pre-calc course. It might be a good one for early in the semester.
1. May 19, 2012 11:27 AM fawnnguyen wrote:
Yeah! Thanks, Sue.
• May 19, 2012 7:32 AM Mike S. wrote:
Wow! Really neat. I'm finishing an area/volume unit with my fifth graders, and had just used Dan Meyer's "World's Largest Cup of Coffee" to introduce volume of non-rectangular prisms. I think I'm trying a combination of these two lessons with my class next week. With doughnuts I think I'll let them treat it like a cylinder with a cylinder cut-out and just introduce the torus idea after. I'm wondering if we could test the volume with displacement, or if the doughnut would float or soak up water too fast.

With the popcorn box, I was thinking of starting it with the graph paper so the measuring/cutting is accurate to begin with and we can all discuss the same exact units.

Thinking about making the boxes with graph paper led me to an epiphany: Maybe I missed this in math class myself, but a 2-dimensional rectangle (the paper before folding it) has no volume because V=L*W*0!
1. May 19, 2012 11:39 AM fawnnguyen wrote:
Hi Mike! I'll be spending a lot of time at Dan's blog and 101qs this summer to see what I can use to plan for next year. Noooo, no displacement, you'd be wasting a perfectly good doughnut!

I thought about graph paper also, but I'm actually glad I didn't because it was really great to see the kids try to make those square corners (not easy). The "blank" slate asks more from them. Also, I think it's important to let them measure as raw as possible, then compare results, then the discussion about accuracies and messiness of using tools can be brought up later as a whole class.

I use length, area, and volume to teach "combining like terms." So a flat paper has 2 dimensions (area) while a box has 3 (volume), adding these quantities just doesn't make sense!

Thanks so much, Mike, for your comment and how you may use this with your 5th graders!

• May 22, 2012 10:52 AM Matt Vaudrey wrote:
@Mike S.
Not a bad idea if you could shellack or seal the donut with epoxy first. The kids will be crushed, but the math will be accurate.

Fawn, I like this a lot. I don't know how you started your year, but from the sound of your writing and the student comments, they're INTRIGUED. Intrigue is a hard sell to secondary math students, and you've found ways to nail it.

Make the biggest box = Boring.
Make the biggest box so I can fill it with popcorn = Woo-hoo! Free food!

It's the little stuff that makes a difference, like handing out compasses to make a Venn Diagram. It's the same lesson, but now with fun stuff.

That's one of the keys, I think. Fun stuff.
1. May 22, 2012 5:02 PM fawnnguyen wrote:
Shellack on a donut? You kill me, Matt.

This year has been really great -- this particular group of 6th graders is amazing! We junior high teachers know how special they are; they work well together and most are highly motivated and hard workers. Exactly, Matt, little things can make a big difference. I think we all try to plan these lessons through their eyes. I want to poke needles in my eyes when I have to sit and listen at workshops for any extended time; I imagine kids feel the same pain if we don't make it engaging and worthwhile for them.

Thanks so much, Matt!

• May 24, 2012 11:59 AM Peter Price wrote:
Nailed it again, Fawn.

I learn so much from reading your posts. I personally love the math in "how big a box could you make from this piece of paper?", but find it challenging to get my students to feel anything at all about it.

Matt's right - adding popcorn is the genius behind getting students to care about the answer.

Do your students know how close they came to high school math here?
1. May 24, 2012 8:48 PM fawnnguyen wrote:
And to think the popcorn idea came from my wanting some popcorn for snack that evening -- I must admit I felt like a genius at the time!  Next year, I'll just get the already popped ones though. Our local farmers' market has freshly popped kettle corn each Saturday. I did tell them about Calculus, a course 6 to 7 years away for them, and that they should be very proud. Thank you, Peter!
• May 24, 2012 7:42 PM Aaron Carpenter wrote:
I just found your site through another math blog. I've already starred three of your lessons on Google Reader, so I can quickly find them later. Keep up the great work with problem-based learning - I'll be stealing some of your stuff next year!
1. May 24, 2012 8:51 PM fawnnguyen wrote:
Hi Aaron. I'm really glad you could use some lessons here! Thank you for leaving your comment.
• May 25, 2012 9:17 AM Karim wrote:
This. Is. Awesome.

Seriously, one of the coolest lessons I've seen in a while. Fawn, you're an artist.

I just have one question: microwave popcorn when there's Kettle Corn to be bought?! (Judging from the bag, Costco, I presume.) That's a form of child abuse. Really, Fawn. Really.
1. May 26, 2012 12:12 AM fawnnguyen wrote:
Hey, Karim.  Your comment made my day, I want you to know. Definitely kettle corn for next year. I know, must ask the kids for forgiveness. Thank you so much for dropping in, Karim!

You and Mathalicious are awesome. Math52 will happen, maybe not just yet...