Blog Post


Creating Problems 

By Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville

As this month’s Knoxville Parent theme is creativity I thought it might be a good idea to be creative about how we get our children to think about math. Or perhaps it’s better to think of it being about when we think about math. In the classroom math is that dreaded subject – “I can’t do math!” But outside the classroom the intimidation factor is gone, so some things that are math just don’t seem like it, so suddenly math isn’t that big problem we have at school.

In fact, if some of the problems presented at school were instead presented at home as “a puzzle,” I think you’d be amazed at how different the outcome would be. Most children love to “figure stuff out,” but in the classroom too often they are taught “the way” to do “this kind of problem.” That’s not a knock on the classroom at all – it’s just the reality of the difference between teaching a crowd versus teaching an individual.

…if some of the problems presented at school were instead presented at home as “a puzzle,” I think you’d be amazed at how different the outcome would be.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Something simple like, “You are six years old, right? How old will you be four years from now?” can be amped up a bit by changing it to, “Since you are eight years old in 2014, how old will you be in 2020?” (Hint: if your child responds, “during what month of 2020?” you can start amping up your problems immediately!) To make the same issue even more interesting, try, “Okay, you’re eight and I’m 34. How old will I be when you’re twelve?” Even more tricky? “You’re eight and I’m 34. How old will you be when I’m twice your age?” This last one, of course, could be done using some pretty simple algebra, but an eight-year-old would do well to figure out how old you were when she was born, and that’s that!

Here’s another riddle. A boy and a girl went to a movie. They spend half of their money on tickets to get in, then half of what was left on popcorn and drinks. They had $10 left over. How much did they have to start with? (Maybe it would be more realistic to say they had $200 left over, but movie theater prices aren’t the point.)

Riddle me this. I have an aquarium that is half full. After I add another 5 gallons of water it is now three quarters full. What is the capacity of the aquarium? This riddle is pretty simple for us older, experienced fishermen, but it will take some figuring for a little land-lubber to see that five gallons is equal to one quarter of the tank, so four quarters would be 20 gallons.

Want a little more challenge for your little math genius? How about this one? On your bike, the pedal sprocket has twelve teeth on it. The sprocket on the 24” wheel has 36 teeth. At what angular velocity must you pedal to achieve a ground speed of 15 miles per hour? Okay, maybe I’m taking it a little far. But this really is the kind of problem your problem-solver will be able to handle if you start early with math – I mean solving riddles – outside of the classroom!

Mike O’Hern, Center Director of Mathnasium of West Knoxville, earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1988. He pursued graduate studies in Materials Science & Engineering while on the Research Staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Mike has had a life-long love of mathematics and teaching, and feels that math is not about learning to be ready for the next math class – it’s about learning to think.

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