Mobile Algebra

Following the introductory use of structure and emoji math to introduce systems, my teaching partner and I continued with mobiles as suggested by the authors of “An Emoji is Worth a Thousand Variables.” EDC has this great website, SolveMe Mobiles, that has 200 mobile puzzles like this:


Each shape in this mobile has a value (or weight) and the total value (or weight) in this mobile is 60 (units). Go ahead and solve the mobile.

This mobile represents a system of four unknowns. Using traditional algebra symbols it might look like this:


A couple of those equations have just one variable, so it may not be quite as intimidating to look at the traditional symbols. On the other hand, the mobile shapes are just so accessible to everyone!

We needed to move our students away from systems that had one variable defined for them, though, and the SolveMe site, as great as it is, always includes some kind of hint. So we started to make up our own mobiles.


As first, students used a lot of educated guessing to solve the mobiles. Then there was a breakthrough.

Take a closer look at the left-hand mobile.


Students realized that they could “cross off” the same shapes on equal branches and the mobile would stay balanced. In the example above, you can “cross off” two triangles and one square. Whatever remains is equivalent, though it no longer totals 36. Therefore, two triangles equals one square. Using that relationship, some students then substituted two triangles for the one square in the left branch. Then they had a branch of 6 triangles with a total of 18. So, each triangle is worth 3. Other students used the same relationship to substitute one square for the two triangles in the right branch, resulting in a branch of 3 squares with a total of 18. So, each square is worth 3.

We were floored. We had never discussed the idea of substitution, but here it was, naturally arising from students reasoning about the structure in the mobile.

mobile4Looking closer at the center mobile, students used the same “cross out” method to find the relationship that 2 triangles equals 3 squares. If we’d been teaching the substitution method in a more traditional way, kids would have been pushed to figure out how much 1 triangle (or 1 square) was worth before making the substitution step. We knew substitution was happening here, but we didn’t invent this approach so we just followed closely to see where our students took us. Since 2 triangles equals 3 squares, some kids substituted 3 squares for the two triangles on the right branch of the mobile. Others made two substitutions of 6 squares for the 4 triangles on the left branch. Either way the result was a branch of 7 squares that totaled 14. It seemed quite natural to them.

What would you do with this one?


Next up: Moving to traditional symbols. The final (?) post of this saga.

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Filed under #CCSS, BMTN, problem solving, teaching

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