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Topic: [math-learn] Computers vs. Calculators, a case study
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Kirby Urner

Posts: 803
Registered: 12/4/04
[math-learn] Computers vs. Calculators, a case study
Posted: Feb 5, 2001 1:09 PM
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Computers vs. Calculators
Case Study: Learning to Manipulate Fractions

Kirby Urner, Feb 5, 2001
Oregon Curriculum Network


Abstract: Whereas fractions-capable calculators hide the
details of implementation, insulating the student from the
inner workings of the methods we use to manipulate fractions,
a computer-savvy approach may be developed which (a) gives
us a fractions-capable CLI (command line environment) and
(b) reinforces student understanding of lcm, gcd, primes,
composites and other relevant concepts central to the
manipulation of fractions.


Whereas some calculators will operate with fractions in p/q
format, "saving" kids from needing to learn the concepts (I
think we all agree they should not be so saved), with a
computer we can more easily _program_ fractions, thereby
implementing the very concepts we want kids to get, use and

For example, when adding a/b + d/e, I need to get a common
denominator. The lowest such denominator will be the lcm
of b and e. After I get my result: [a*f + d*g]/lcm where
f = lcm/b and g = lcm/e, I'll want to see if I can reduce
the result to lowest terms -- which involves finding the gcd.

Example: 2/3 + 5/2 lcm(3,2)=6 f = 6/3 = 2 and g = 6/2 = 3.
So we're going (2/3)(2/2) + (5/2)(3/3) i.e. (4/6) + (15/6) =
(2f + 5g)/lcm or 19/6. Since gcd(19,6) = 1, no further
reducing takes place -- we may want to say that's 3 1/6, but to
my eye, 19/6 is terminal (a final answer).

Now let's see this on a computer (>>> is the prompt, at which
the student types, with the computer responding flush left):

>>> from functions import Fraction
>>> f1 = Fraction(2,3)
>>> f2 = Fraction(5,2)
>>> f3 = f1 + f2
>>> f3


That's not so different from doing it on a fractions-capable
calculator. The difference comes next, when we pull up source
code and start looking at what goes on under the hood:

def simplify(self):
# reduce numerator/denominator to lowest terms
divisor = primes.gcd(self.p,self.q)
if abs(divisor) > 1:
self.p /= divisor
self.q /= divisor

Ah so... a Fraction object has a numerator and denominator,
stored in self.p and self.q respectively. Here we see an
algorithm for simplifying:

divisor = gcd(p,q)
if |divisor| > 1
p = p/divisor
q = q/divisor

So how is the gcd computed? That leads to an interesting
topic, not mentioned in the California Standard I don't think:
Euclid's Algorithm, one of the oldest examples of an algorithm
on the books (shouldn't have been dropped):

def gcd(a,b):
"""Return greatest common divisor using
Euclid's Algorithm."""
while b:
a, b = b, a % b
return a

Pretty simple. We keep cycling as long as b>0. a % b gives
the remainder r when a is divided by b. BTW, kids need
exposure to % or mod -- however symbolized -- "that which
gives the remainder after division". It's basic to math
and a primitive operation in most computer languages -- and
I presume a key on most calculators. There's no reason to
postpone playing with it until college or Algebra II.
If a mod 2 = 0, then a is even -- something to start with.

If b doesn't go evenly into a (without remainder), then the gcd
will have to divide both b and the remainder, so now we're
looking for gcd(b,r). We just keep cycling until there's no
more remainder, at which point the value behind 'a' may be 1
(i.e. no common factors other than 1, meaning a,b were
relatively prime).

For more on Euclid's Algorithm see:

Basic Math Facts: GCD & LCM (grades 6-8)

And what's the relationship between gcd and lcm? That's simple
too: lcm(a,b) = a*b/gcd(a,b). You can think of this as
getting all the prime factors of both a and b and putting those
in the numerator, then canceling any factors they have in
common (i.e. the gcd) -- the result being the lowest number
into which both a's and b's prime factors will divide, i.e. the

So when we go to add two fractions, what do we do?

def __add__(self,n):
# add self to another fraction
fract = self.mkfract(n)
common = primes.lcm(self.q,fract.q)
term1 = self.p * common/self.q
term2 = fract.p * common/fract.q
return Fraction(term1+term2,common)

This is the same algorithm as specified above i.e. if adding
(a/b) + (c/d), I find:

term1 = a * lcm/b
and term2 = d * lcm/e

Then (term1 + term2)/lcm is the result I'm looking for, which
I'll make sure is reduced to lowest terms.

My use of __add__ means I'm overriding the meaning of the +
operator. With regard the Fractions, the + operator will
invoke the method shown above. This is another big advantage
of computers: I can make the basic operators behave
differently depending on context. That's how mathematicians
actually think: "to multiply" means whatever we define it to
mean vis-a-vis a given set. It's a generic operation, and one
that means one thing with respect to Z (integers) and something
else with respect to matrices or permutations.

In sum, by studying the methods behind the Fractions class,
students will be reinforced in their understanding of gcd, lcm
and the methods for adding and reducing fractions. Of course
additional methods for multiplying and dividing fractions are
also defined within the same class, the complete source code
for which is available at my website (or other websites -- many
many people have implemented a Fractions class in one way or
another, and many more will do so, in math class or on the job).

Thanks to this Fractions class, I'm able to use the rows of
Pascal's Triangle (generated by another method) to compute
successive Bernoulli numbers, and output them in the form p/q.
This isn't the fastest algorithm out there, but it works, and
it links to Pascal's Triangle, which is a corner stone in my
curriculum, a bridge from mental geometry to mental arithemetic
as per:

For example:

>>> series.bernoulli(70)

That's a nice big fraction -- another shortcoming of
calculators is they usually have a hard time with numbers like
this, unless augmented by computer software -- in which case we
might as well cut the umbilical chord and just use the computer
without the calculator.


Note: in 1998 (actually late '97), I launched a "math
makeover campaign" in the USA context. Part of the campaign
is to bring higher technology into our classrooms. My
strategy has been to promote student involvement, as well
as teacher participation. For more background reading and
exhibits, see:

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