see eg Carrel-West journal of political economy 2010

]]>I am chasing a Ph. D. in mathematics, and I now teach school in a juvenile detention facility in Ohio. My students are incarcerated, and many of the have (cough) treated school as optional for most of their lives. I rarely get all the way through algebra I in the school year.

I do sometimes get a student who is very talented in mathematics or another STEM field, and I have done one-on-one with these young men and women, but the exercises that seem to work the best are the ones that I find outside of a textbook. I spoke to my students about the P NP problem earlier this year. I set the hook early in my lecture, and told them about the $1M bounty on the head of the prize, and gave a brief history of the millennial problems and what the P NP problem can do if it is shown that the two parts equal each other.

My final activity is that I give them a set of 20 numbers that sum to 3000. I offer a candy bar prize (believe me, that is a big deal to them) to anyone who can break down these 20 numbers into two groups of 10 numbers, each of which sum to 1500. This obviously is very difficult, and I use my motivational tricks, cajoling, and backslapping to keep them focused. I’ve done this a few times, and only had two students who succeeded. One was a very smart young man, and one was… I’ll be diplomatic about his abilities; he will probably continue to be incarcerated most of his life, but he solved my problem.

Since they would have to, in theory, go through 20! possibilities, I usually give everyone a candy bar after the exercise, and tell them that I was able to put this puzzle together in about 15 minutes, but solving it would be extremely hard, even if they had a computer with a lot more firepower than my laptop. It does a pretty good job of illustrating the difference between a P and NP problem, and even gets a few positive remarks from them.

I wouldn’t want to have to stay in jail outside of an 8 hour workday, but spending time with those who are interested in the material is always a privilege, even in the land of orange polyester clothes and shower shoes.

Steve

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