# POP! Popcorn Optimization Problem

I’m in the middle of optimization in my calculus class now. I had a “long block” (every seven school days, I see a class once for 90 minutes) and for the second half of that long block, I like to do something slightly different. Since I knew my kids hadn’t seen or done the traditional “box optimization problem” in precalculus (since I taught them last year also!), I decided to do that.

This might jog your memory if you don’t know what I’m talking about. You take a piece of paper. You cut out four squares (the same size squares) from the corners. You then fold up the four flaps and tape the box shut. There you go!

You can probably tell that the box’s volume is going to be based on the original paper you start with, and the size of the square you decide to cut out. The question is: what’s the largest volume you can get for this box.

If you cut out a teeeny tiiiiny square, you’re going to have a very large base for the box, but almost no height. And if you cut out a giant square, you’re going to have a large height but a teeeeeeeny tiiny base. And somewhere between a teeeeeny tiny square and a giant square is going to be the perfect square to cut out which will give you the largest volume.

So the question is: given a specific piece of paper, what size square do you need to cut out to get the maximum volume.

This question has been done to death in middle school classes, in Algebra II classes, in Precalculus classes, and in Calculus classes. And I recognize that this post is just another rehashing of the same old problem. But I remember reading about a teacher who did a variation of this by including popcorn. And I wanted to do the same. No surprise, when I looked it up, it was dear Fawn. But I had such a lovely time in class today watching this unfold that I wanted to share the specific sheet I made up for kids to do this.

Teacher Moves / Outline

This activity requires students knowing and using the quadratic formula. My kids (standard level calculus) are pretty weak with algebra, so I started the class with a “do now” that had kids use the QF. So I recommend that.

Show kids the popcorn. (I had two different flavors.) Show your excitement about the activity. (I was genuinely excited!) Get this psyched. Hand out the worksheet but nothing else.

Put a three minute timer on the board. Explain the problem. Show kids a piece of cardstock with 4 squares drawn on it. Show kids a second piece of cardstock with those same four squares cut out and the flaps folded up so it looks like a box (but untaped, so you can unfold it too). Tell them the volume they create is the amount of popcorn they are going to get. And that you aren’t going to overfill their boxes — just to the brim. Tell them they have 3 minutes to work with their partner to come up with the best size square they want to cut out. And they are not allowed to do any calculations. Just visual estimation.

At that point, give cardstock, ruler, scissors, and tape to kids. Do not let kids start until you press “GO” on the timer. Then… GO!

After three minutes, my kids were done. They measured the side length of the square they cut out and recorded it on the worksheet. They then cut and taped. They weren’t allowed to get their popcorn until they did one more thing… some math…

It was super important to me that kids didn’t measure anything, except for the side length of the square, to do these problems. Why? Because this is where I want kids to recognize the side length of the square is the height (that was obvious to all my kids), but also that when calculating the length and width, they were going to be doing 216-2x and 279-2x (where x was their side length). Only a few kids didn’t get the 2bit (they only subtracted x), but I sent them back to their seats to rethink their length and width and they immediately got it. It was actually awesome to hear their OOOOOOHHHHH moment. But yeah, no measuring. They have to use their brainzzz to come up with the length and width with what they are given!

Only after checking their volume with me, and I said it was correct, could they fill their boxes with popcorn.

As an aside, when writing this activity, I had to decide what level of scaffolding I wanted to give for this. I decided not much. So I didn’t include any diagrams. (Well, I did put two on the very last page of the worksheet in case a kid needed some additional help. Turns out no one did.) I also initially wrote the worksheet to be in inches, but then changed to centimeters, and then after thinking a bit more, I changed to millimeters. Why? So kids don’t have to deal with fractions (inches) or decimals (centimeters), and we could keep our eye on the prize. It also made the volume huge — and so kids would have to do a little work to get the correct window when graphing.

At this point, I sent them back to their seats with popcorn in their box to then solve the general case. Close to the end of class, I posted the different volumes students got by estimation (it was a tiny class today… kids were absent or at sports).

Overall, I spent about 35 minutes on this in class. One pair finished completely. All the others are at the place where they are in the middle of the calculus work (close to being done).

1. Sam and all mathematicians,

For math class block schedule rocks but many schools do not practice this. Our school has 38 minute classes which makes many of “Learn while having fun” activities rushed.

Any thoughts

Thanks.

Purviben
@TrivediZiemba

2. Hi Purviben,
I’m so sorry! I can’t imagine 38 minutes with kids. That’s just too short! I have them for 50 minutes usually (and once I have them for 90 minutes every so often). If you use twitter, I might recommend sending a tweet with this question and include the hashtag #MTBoS . That is an amazing network of math educators and maybe someone is in a similar situation who has found a solution.
Always,
Sam