Math Night Fun

One of the local elementary schools invited me to volunteer at their "math night" later this month and I am dreaming up  some computer math demos that should be fun.

I would really love to show them GNU Octave, Processing, Microsoft Mathematics, Mathematica on the Raspberry Pi, and any other software they can get for free and play with at home.

I'm trying to narrow down to two or three activities. I'm hoping for each activity to have a hands-on thing they can touch and do, mapped to a simulation running on the computer so they can see how computers solve problems.

First one I am pretty excited about.  I was able to make a Towers of Hanoi toy thanks to Visio, the Maker Garage laser cutter, and a repurposed bamboo skewer I found in the kitchen. I can make a few more of these and then write some C# to solve this problem and have it running in a debugger so they can step through and see how computers solve a problem. It passed play testing last weekend on an astute 4th grader so I think it is going to work. I was thinking bringing in my old reverse polish notation HP calculator might be a fun thing as well if they get bored of stacks of wood I can teach them to calculate on the stack.


Second idea is one suggested by a friend who is a retired chemical engineer and who brought it to our Hour of Code at the Microsoft Museum in 2014 and was a hit.  It combines a pink bouncy ball with Excel and they track the bounce and then chart it in excel with a function to predict where future bounces will be from different heights. I am thinking maybe of going outside of Excel and using some of the other software listed earlier so they can compare different approaches.  Would also be neat to have them write a function that predicts how high they need to drop the ball from for it to bounce as high as they are tall.  It's surprisingly entertaining to run this station and fun to see them connecting the dots.

A third idea that has been fun in the past is to set up a scale.  They weigh themselves and then plug their weight into functions that calculate how much they would weigh on different planets.  Maybe with a diagram of the solar system somewhere nearby. Even if they do not quite get the concept of variables and formulas they have fun thinking about how gravity is different on different planets and it is a number that means something to them.  There are JavaScript calculators for this type of thing on the web, I can fall back to one of those. But I think having some ready made code up and running in a debugger IDE would be great so they could see how to write a function to calculate it and how the computer stores variables.

We'll see how it goes.  :)

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