Archive for February, 2014

In my last post on the Farmer and the Fencing optimization problem, I mentioned that separating the pen into two triangular pieces with a diagonal cross-section makes the problem a lot more complex and requires the use of Lagrangian methods to solve.  After conceiving the problem in 1999-2000 and setting up the Lagrangian system that would solve the problem in 2001-2002 I finally solved it this week by using Wolfram Alpha.  If anyone out there sees a good algebraic solution for the Lagrangian system of three equations with three unknowns, please let me know.

Given 100 feet of fencing, a rectangular pen with length =x, width =y and a diagonal cross-section =\sqrt{x^2+y^2}, the perimeter constraint equation would be:


The area equation we want to optimize is:


So, the Lagrangian process says that to maximize a function f(x,y), with a given constraint g(x,y)=C, we need to set up a system based on the equality:

\bigtriangledown f(x,y)=\lambda \bigtriangledown g(x,y)

In this problem, f(x,y)=A=xy and g(x,y)=2x+2y+\sqrt{x^2+y^2}.

So the gradient of f(x,y), or \bigtriangledown f(x,y) is:

\bigtriangledown f(x,y)=(\frac{\partial f}{\partial x}, \frac{\partial f}{\partial y})

And the gradient of g(x,y), or \bigtriangledown g(x,y) is:

\bigtriangledown g(x,y)=(\frac{\partial g}{\partial x}, \frac{\partial g}{\partial y})

So, going back to the functions we’re working with based on the perimeter and area, the Lagrangian set up would be:

\bigtriangledown f(x,y)=\lambda \bigtriangledown g(x,y)

(y,x)=\lambda (2+\frac{x}{\sqrt{x^2+y^2}}, 2+\frac{y}{\sqrt{x^2+y^2}})

This generates the system of equations:

y=2\lambda+\frac{\lambda x}{\sqrt{x^2+y^2}}

x=2\lambda+\frac{\lambda y}{\sqrt{x^2+y^2}}


I must admit once again to resorting to a technological solution for this system.  Using Wolfram Alpha, we get the solution

x=y=\frac{100}{4+\sqrt{2}}\approx 18.47

This makes the cross-piece:

\sqrt{x^2+y^2} =\frac{100}{\sqrt{9+4\sqrt{2}}} \approx 26.12

Which of course means that the optimal area is once again generated by a square!  If we assumed this at the outset of the problem, it becomes much simpler (but less “fun”).  The permimeter in that case is:




I’ve been carrying this around with me for nearly 15 years and dug out the work I had originally done a few weeks ago to look at it “with fresh eyes.”  I found a few minor errors and was happy to use Wolfram Alpha to solve the system and finally generate a solution for this problem.

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In Defense of Algebra

The American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) is in the process of putting together a position statement on the Appropriate Use of Intermediate Algebra as a Prerequisite Course that will annul the requirement that students pursuing a four-year degree in disciplines other than the hard sciences take and pass a course in Intermediate Algebra.  While this won’t directly impact students who initially enroll at four-year schools, it will have an enormous impact on math education at the nation’s community and technical colleges.  Some schools may amend their Intermediate Algebra courses without destroying the core topics, but I fear that others will end up going down the same road that many high schools did during the rush to get rid of algebra at the K-12 level during the 1990s.

The “reform math” movement of the 1990s led to a plethora of poorly written NSF-backed “math” textbooks such as Core-Plus and IMP at the high school level and MathLand and Everyday Math at the elementary level.  The repercussions of this misguided effort to reform math education at the K-12 level are still felt today, and in some places the fight continues.  The Seattle School Board was taken to court in 2009-10 over its mathematics textbook selection process and a King County Superior Court judge ruled their selection of the Key Curriculum “Discovery” series to be arbitrary and capricious.  An appeals court in 2011 reversed that decision and the textbook selection was allowed to stand.

The upshot of the use of reform materials at the K-12 level is that developmental math enrollment at the two and four-year colleges and universities has exploded.  The solution – stop teaching algebra there as well.

I respectfully disagree.  Here is the text of an email I’ve sent to AMATYC regarding their position statement:

I am responding to the AMATYC position statement on the Appropriate Use of Intermediate Algebra as a Prerequisite Course.  I have also copied Jerry Kissick, the President of ORMATYC, on this email as I believe that ORMATYC should adopt a position statement on the importance of Beginning and Intermediate Algebra to a Liberal Arts education.

I have been a Mathematics Instructor at Clatsop Community College in Astoria, Oregon for 10 years and taught high school mathematics for 6 years prior to entering the MA program in Mathematics at the University of Maine in the fall of 2000.  It is my professional opinion that Beginning and Intermediate Algebra are appropriate prerequisites for college level mathematics no matter the area of specialization of the student.

Any student expecting to receive a four year degree should have demonstrated an understanding of Beginning and Intermediate Algebra at some point in their academic career.  Students who are enrolled in vocational degree or certificate programs at two-year colleges should have different requirements based on their program of study.

Most four-year colleges and universities require that their students demonstrate an understanding of Beginning and Intermediate Algebra prior to matriculation at the college or university.  This is normally done through the submission of SAT or ACT scores after the completion of high school algebra courses.  At two-year colleges, developmental mathematics courses offer an opportunity for students to demonstrate understanding of Beginning and Intermediate Algebra, after which they may then transfer to a four-year school.

Algebra is one of the foundations of a Liberal Arts education and, together with arithmetic, form the conceptual foundation for all of mathematics.  Algebra is a prerequisite to Statistics.  Statistics is not a separate discipline wholly apart from the rest of mathematics – a true understanding of statistics requires an understanding of Beginning and Intermediate Algebra.

Civil rights activist Bob Moses has spent the past 25 years running the Algebra Project, trying to help minority students achieve a better understanding of algebra because he believes that access to quality algebra instruction is a civil rights issue.  Here is a link to an NPR story on Bob Moses.

The importance of Algebra to a student’s overall education demands that we not abdicate our responsibility to teach the subject, but rather work to ensure that we do a better job teaching the subject to all students.

The reform of California’s K-12 mathematics standards in the 1990s led an explosion of developmental enrollment in the California CC and Cal State systems.  This was not related to the topics in the Beginning and Intermediate Algebra curriculum, but rather to the preparation (or lack thereof) the students received at the K-12 level.  The Complete College America organization has recently been an active proponent of “alternative math pathways.”  I find it telling that the organization is called “Complete College America,” rather than “Educate American Students.”  Their focus appears to be getting students to a diploma without the academic and intellectual underpinnings that a college diploma normally represents.

I do often see students struggling to make sense of the work in their mathematics courses.  However, I also see them mature both emotionally and academically as a result of those struggles.  This is the purpose of education – to help our students to mature intellectually as a result of their engagement with the course material.

Algebra as a discipline has a history that goes several millennia deep in human culture.  The works of Diophantus, Brahmagupta and Al-Khwarizmi are beautiful, ineluctable parts of human heritage, and this is not to mention the more “recent” work of Fibonacci, Cardano, Fermat and Des Cartes.  While their techniques and notation may be archaic, it is the power of their reasoning that shines through across the centuries.

A liberal arts education is not and should not be a form of job training.  Many of my students will not directly use much mathematics in their chosen profession and they know this.  However, they are still interested in being an educated person, which means having the background in a broad range of human knowledge so as to be able to think independently about the world and society in which they live.

Thank you for your consideration of my opinion regarding the AMATYC position statement on the Appropriate Use of Intermediate Algebra as a Prerequisite Course.  I have also attached a series of essays written by individuals who believe as I do that Beginning and Intermediate Algebra are part of the foundation of a Liberal Arts education.


Richard W. Beveridge

Mathematics Instructor

Clatsop Community College

The links for the attachments I mention in the letter are below:

Daniel Willingham at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog

Jessica Lahey at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog

Nicholas Warner at the Huffington Post

Evelyn Lamb at Scientific American’s Observations blog

Jennifer Ouellette at Scientific American’s Cocktail Party Physics blog

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