Boston Globe delivery woes lead to a math activity: “Ruminating on Routes.”

If you’re reading this in the Boston area, you probably know about the Boston Globe’s problem with home deliveries this month. As soon as they switched delivery companies just before the beginning of the year, massive problems ensued — principally a complete failure to deliver the paper to some subscribers. The Globe claimed that 95% of subscribers were receiving their papers, but that is surely a gross exaggeration.

Here are some interesting links. First of all, we have the description of the problem:
• Globe, distributor trade blame as delivery woes persist
• Boston Globe delivery problems could last up to 6 months, distributor says

And then we have the attempted solution:
Globe turns to former distributor to get back on track

But wait! All these articles are from the Globe itself, so maybe they represent the company line. Let’s try a more neutral source:
Amid delivery problems, Boston Globe reporters deliver newspapers

As you can gather from this last headline, employees pitched in to provide a temporary workaround (actually, not just reporters, despite the headline).

So what does all this have to do with a math activity? It turned out that the forces of serendipity conspired to provide an opportunity for a discrete math investigation. Our Algebra II students will soon be choosing between Precalculus and Applied Discrete Math Concepts for next year; Precalculus is fairly easy to describe, since it’s basically a continuation of Algebra II, but what is discrete math? To engage our students in thinking about a discrete math problem, my colleague Aviva Hamavid (coincidentally also my niece) wrote a pair of worksheets about the Globe delivery woes. As we do in our Applied Discrete Math Concepts course, she asked students to read an article or two, dig out some facts, discuss the situation with each other, and explore possible solutions. Very different from standard Algebra II!

It worked. The vast majority of students were engaged in the process and did what they needed to do. The biggest issue was the “traveling salesman problem”: trying to find the most efficient route through a large number of locations. We simulated the problem by asking each group to find the shortest path to deliver papers to all their homes (as well as a couple of other sites). Since we couldn’t have realistically large groups, we at least were able to add interest and complexity by ensuring that each group contained a mixture of Weston and Boston students. There’s no perfect general solution, but we were able to compare different options.

Here are the worksheets:

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning, Weston