Covering 100 Squares

October 27, 2020 at 5:36 am 2 comments

There’s an old math joke that says math books are sad because they have too many problems. But I disagree; I believe that most math books — and, in particular, textbooks — are sad because they have too many exercises.

To try to release more true problems into the wild, I recently wrote a book called One-Hundred Problems Involving the Number 100. Published by NCTM, the book contains problems, suggestions for classroom use, and solutions. Some of the problems are old chestnuts, such as, “What is 1 + 2 + 3 + ⋯ + 100?” (Problem 21: Gauss and Check). Others are complete originals, and occasionally a little silly, such as, “If all the positive integers from 1 to 100 were spelled out, how many letters would be used?” (Problem 1: Spell It Out). But my favorite problem in the book, which I’ve shared twice during NCTM’s 100 Days of Professional Development (May 14, Oct 7; login required), is Problem 100: Covering with Squares.

As shown below, a square grid with 100 smaller squares can be covered by 100 squares (each measuring 1 × 1), by 25 squares (each measuring 2 × 2), or by 13 squares (one 6 × 6, two 4 × 4, two 3 × 3, two 2 × 2, and six 1 × 1).

Find all values of 0 < n < 100 for which it is impossible to cover a 10 × 10 grid with n squares of integer side length.

I’ll admit, I’m not ecstatic about the phrasing of the question at the end. The symbolic representation makes it succinct, sure, but this problem can be investigated by students who may be too young to understand that notation. It might be better to just ask, “Can you cover it with two squares? Can you cover it with 58 squares? For how many different numbers of squares can you find a covering?”

You can, of course, explore this problem using graph paper. But for a digital experience, click on the link below and explore using Google Slides:

When you click on that link, you’ll be required to “Make a copy” for your own Google Drive. This is done for two reasons: first, it’ll prohibit any editing to the original file, so that other folks who use that link will receive a similarly pristine copy; and second, it places a copy in your Google Drive that you can play with, modify, or share with your students. If you do that, be sure to change /edit and anything that follows at the end of the URL to /copy, which will require anyone you share it with to make a copy, too. Of course, you could also just share the link above with your students, and they can have a copy of the original file.

When using this problem in the classroom, start by showing a few examples — such as the ones above — and then have all students find a covering for the grid that’s different from your examples. Because every student can find at least one covering, this breeds confidence. In addition, it ensures that all students understand the problem. When all students have found a covering, have them share it with a partner. From then on, allow students to work in pairs or small groups to find other coverings. 

To facilitate the discussion, I draw a blank hundreds grid on the whiteboard. As unique coverings are found, students are allowed to enter the number in the hundreds grid. Of course, I require them to first verify with a partner that they have counted the number of squares correctly; once confirmed, they can show the covering to me; and if that number hasn’t been entered in the hundreds grid yet, they get to enter it. This can be motivating for students, and it’s a good opportunity to get less participatory students engaged.

When using this problem recently with a group of students, this is how the hundreds grid looked after about 20 minutes:

Whiteboard Record of Student Work

You’ll notice that numbers appear in different colors; each group received a different color dry erase marker. What you might also notice is that the numbers 17, 20, 23, 26, …, 65 all appear in red. This seemed more than coincidental, so I asked about it. The group members explained:

We realized we could cover the grid with a one 6 × 6 square and sixteen 2 × 2 squares:

We then divided one of the 2 × 2 squares into four 1 × 1 squares. That meant that one 2 × 2 square was replaced by four 1 × 1 squares, increasing the number of squares by three. So, the grid was now covered with 17 + 3 = 20 squares.

If we kept doing that — if we kept dividing the 2 × 2 squares — then we’d keep adding three more squares, so we could get 23, 26, 29, and so on, all the way up to 65.

The realization that one configuration could be transformed into many others allowed students to find coverings for myriad numbers. For what values of n could the grid not be covered? That’s left as a question for you. Have fun!

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

When a Half Is More Than a Half (and When It Ain’t) Thinking > Symbols

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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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