Networks as a Problem Solving Technique
Denis Hanson, Department of Mathematics & Statistics,
University of Regina
Diane Hanson, Saskatchewan Education (O.M.L.O.),
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has stated: " ... that all
students need to learn more, and often different, mathematics and that
instruction in mathematics must be significantly revised." (, page 1). In
order for people to meet the needs of life in a rapidly changing world,
curriculum goals in mathematics must prepare students to develop the skills
and knowledge of concepts necessary to meet the needs of the average consumer;
to develop the ability to analyze and interpret quantitative information; to
develop logical thinking skills, and an appreciation of mathematics; to develop
the desire, confidence, and ability to solve problems; to communicate
mathematically; and to pursue further study in mathematics and mathematically
related areas (see, page iii). It is through these goals that students will
become mathematically literate. In order to attain these goals, "problem
solving should be the central focus of the mathematics curriculum. (It) should
permeate the entire program and provide the context in which concepts and
skills can be learned." (, page 23). These sentiments are repeated in
Mathematics, Charting the Course, Summary and Recommendations, .
"Toward this end, we see classrooms as places where interesting problems are
regularly explored using important mathematical ideas. Our premise is that
what a student learns depends to a great degree on how he or she
has learned it... ." (, page 5). Students should be given the opportunity
to model and solve problems from every day activities, and, through this active
process, develop an appreciation of the process of solving problems.
"Mathematics becomes useful to a student only when it has developed through a
personal intellectual engagement that creates new understanding." 
In this note we look at a problem from Discrete Mathematics. Although the
N.C.T.M. 'Standards' recommends the study of Discrete Mathematics (counting,
permutations, combinations, graph theory, etc.) be integrated throughout
the later years (grades 9 - 12), there are numerous examples that lend
themselves to the middle years (and earlier!). The problem that we consider
involves mathematical modeling of a familiar situation and has the feature that
the solutions are not unique. Finding the solutions (actually developing an
appropriate algorithm) requires an understanding of the model from the
real-life situation, and, the different approaches developed by the students
provide ideal opportunities for classroom discussion. The problem and the
concepts involved are easily adapted to other real-life situations. We
conclude with some other problems that may be modeled in a similar manner.
2. The problem.
There has been a huge blizzard and all the streets are blocked. Suppose that
you and your friends have a map of the roads between houses and further that
you know the time, in minutes, that it takes a snowplow to clear different
sections of road. Your problem is to devise a scheme for the snowplow operator
to follow in order for him to clear (just) enough roads such that each of you
can get to any other friend's house, and further, find such schemes that
accomplish this in a minimum amount of snowplowing time. We allow paths
between two friends' houses to pass by other friends' houses along the way,
that is, they are not always direct paths.
3. The mathematics.
It is not important in this article that we be too formal in our
definitions and proofs and we deal with most things on an intuitive level.
When we talk about a graph or a network in Discrete Mathematics,
we mean a set of points (vertices) and edges (lines) that join
some pairs of these points. Sometimes we attach a value to an edge which we
call its weight. A network is connected if you can get from any one
point in the network to any other point by 'walking' along the edges. Figure 1
is an example of a connected graph with 9 points and 16 edges. (It is not
always the case that edges don't cross one another as in this example but for
our purposes we will restrict ourselves to such 'planar' graphs).
A Graph or Network
A circuit in a graph is a sequence of edges that allows us to travel
from a point through other points and return to the initial point. We may pass
through the same point of the graph more than once. If the points on the
circuit are distinct we call it a cycle. For example, in figure1,
travelling around the 'outside' of the graph determines a cycle of length six.
Another special type of graph is a tree - a connected graph without any
cycles (see figure 2). You might observe that a tree with n points has exactly
n-1 edges (just enough edges to connect all the points). For example the tree
in figure 2 has 9 points and 8 edges.
4. The model and solution.
We model our problem with a weighted graph as shown in figure 3 where the
points of the graph are the houses, the edges correspond to roads and the
weights on the edges give the number of minutes that it takes to plow that
To solve the problem the student needs to make several observations. Remember
that we must connect all of the houses. To do so in the most efficient manner
we must build a tree connecting all the houses so that the total weight of the
edges on the tree that we select is as small as possible. The total weight of
the tree corresponds to the total time needed by the plow.
The reason we want a tree is that if we include a cycle in the set of roads
that we select, we could discard one of the roads on the cycle and still have
all of our houses connected (with less plowing required). The algorithm that
solves the problem (known as Kruskal's Algorithm, see , page 54) is an
example of what is called a "greedy algorithm" - we select roads in the
greediest possible way. It is clear that we want to pick as many roads with
smallest weights (times) as possible. If we choose all of them (the roads of
weight 10 in our example) we would be including cycles, so we choose as many as
possible without creating a cycle. Note that there is more than one way to do
this. Having chosen as many as possible of weight 10, we now look at the roads
with second smallest weights (the roads of weight 20 in our example)
and add as many of these as possible to our list, all the while being
careful to avoid creating a cycle. Continue in this vein until we have
selected one less road than the number of houses (8 roads in our example). The
result is a tree with minimum total weight (time). Two solutions are
illustrated in figure 4. Note however, that although the solutions are
distinct, the total weight of the selected edges, i.e., the total time required
is 10 +10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 20 + 20 = 100 minutes in both cases. This is
always the case.
How many different solutions can you find?
5. Further directions and problems.
The concepts of graph theory lend themselves to many applications. A network
ideally models communication networks, airline routes, electrical networks etc.
where the weights assigned to the edges could be long distance rates,
distances, resistances, whatever... . Graphs can easily model the societal
relationships between students - this time an edge represents a friendship
between two people. Sometimes we use directed edges (arrows) in our models,
for one way streets for example. Beyond these applications of course is the
study of graphs for their own sake. There are many introductory combinatorics
books containing sections on graph theory and a number of 'elementary' texts on
the subject (see  for example). Unfortunately these are usually at least at
the secondary level and need to be adapted down for the K - 8 classrooms. As
long as the size of the examples studied is not too large, many of the ideas
are not beyond the elementary and middle year student.
We close with some suggestions for further study.
i) Suppose in the snowplow problem of section 2, the plow operator knows he has
to plow out roads forming a tree but since he is paid by the hour, he plows a
tree of maximum rather than minimum time (cost). How does he pick the roads
ii) Suppose instead of the snowplow problem of section 2 we take the map of
figure 3 to represent distances between houses. How can we find the shortest
distance from our house (pick your own) to each of our friend's
houses? The solution will be different for each person's house. This problem
is significantly more difficult but, as long as we keep the size of our problem
small, it is reasonable and should stimulate some good classroom discussion.
iii) Suppose that you have a map of part of the city which constitutes a
snowplow's area to be cleaned (see figure 5). Is there a plan that allows the
snowplow to go down each street exactly once and end up at its starting point?
If not, can we minimize the number of streets that it must travel (not
necessarily plow) more than once? This problem is slightly more difficult than
the main question in this paper but easier than question ii). It turns out to
be quite easy in the case where an even number of roads (edges) leave each
house (point) as in figure 5. The solutions in this latter case are called
Euler circuits. If there are exactly two houses without an even number of
roads leaving them then there is a solution where the plow starts at one of
these houses and finishes at the other.
The problems mentioned in this article are discussed in a grade 5 model unit
contained in Mathematics: A Curriculum Guide for the Elementary Level,
. Clearly the size and complexity of the problem can be adapted to suit
almost all grade levels. For example, problems can be changed using a
papergirl's route as she delivers delivers papers on both sides of the
street, or a garbage truck route (whether the garbage is collected from both
sides of the street at the same time alters the problem). These problems offer
ideal opportunities for students to test and discuss trheir ideas in group
situations. Students may be assessed through the use anecdotal records,
written assignments or observation checklists.
1. Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics,
2. Everybody Counts, A Report to the Nation on the Future of Mathematics
Education, National Research Council, Washington D.C., 1989.
3. Mathematics: A Curriculum Guide for the Elementary Level,
Saskatchewan Education, 1992.
4. Mathematics, Charting the Course, Summary and Recommendations,
Saskatchewan Education, (1989).
5. Robin J. Wilson, Introduction to Graph Theory, 3rd. edition, Longman
Group Ltd., 1985.
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