A Ton of Money (or Maybe More)

June 5, 2017 at 6:02 am Leave a comment

One of my favorite resources from Illuminations is Too Big or Too Small, a collection of three classroom activities that develop number sense, one of which is the following problem:

Just as you decide to go to bed one night, the phone rings and a friend offers you a chance to be a millionaire. He tells you he won $2 million in a contest. The money was sent to him in two suitcases, each containing $1 million in one-dollar bills. He will give you one suitcase of money if your mom or dad will drive him to the airport to pick it up. Could your friend be telling you the truth? Can he make you a millionaire?

This problem is from the book Developing Number Sense in the Middle Grades by Barbara Reys and Rita Barger, published by NCTM in 1991. So it’s not new, but it’s still good.

Million Dollar Bill

© NCTM 2017

My first attempt to use this problem with students was dreadful (details below), but I’ve used this problem successfully many times since. Yet something about it always bothered me. I’m not opposed to fictitious scenarios if they get students interested. But this scenario, in which a friend claims to win $2,000,000 and needs a ride to the airport, seems too contrived and not adventurous enough. Luckily, I recently had food poisoning and spent an entire Saturday on the couch watching bad movies. While watching Rush Hour (1998), I found a scenario that I liked a whole lot better…

In the clip, the kidnapper asks for the following:

  • $20 million in $50’s
  • $20 million in $20’s
  • $10 million in $10’s

Now the questions of “How much would that weigh? How big a case would you need to carry all of it?” seem a little more meaningful.

I’ll channel my inner Andrew Stadel here. For both the weight and volume:

  • Give an estimate that you know is too low.
  • Give an estimate that you know is too high.

Now, do the calculations, and see how close your intuition was.

When I first used this task with students, I was anticipating a great discussion about how to estimate the weight and volume of the money. I suspected that some students might estimate that you could fit 5 or 6 bills on a sheet of paper, there are 500 sheets of paper in a ream, a ream weighs about 5 pounds, yada, yada, yada. Instead, one student raised his hand and said:

A dollar bill weighs exactly 1 gram.

I asked how he knew that. “Do you collect money? Are you a numismatist?”

No. That’s how drug dealers measure cocaine. They put a dollar bill on one side of a scale, and they put the cocaine on the other.

“Oh,” I said.

Some days, your students learn something from you. And some days, you learn something from them.

After you estimate the weight and volume, check your answer by clicking over to reference.com.

If you use this video clip and activity in a classroom with students, I’d love to hear how it goes. Please post about your experience in the comments.

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About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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