Engaging students: Solving logarithmic equations

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission again comes from my former student Caitlin Kirk. Her topic: how to engage Algebra II or Precalculus students when solving logarithmic equations.

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B. Curriculum: How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

Logarithms are a topic that appears at multiple levels of high school math. In Algebra II, students are first introduced to logarithms when they are asked to identify graphs of parent functions including f (x) = logax. Later in the same class, they learn to formulate equations and inequalities based on logarithmic functions by exploring the relationship between logarithms and their inverses. From there, they can develop a definition of a logarithm.

Solving logarithmic equations extends what students learned about logarithms in Algebra II. Once a proper definition of logarithms has been established, along with a graphical foundation of logs, students learn to solve logarithmic equations.  Properties of logarithms are used to expand, condense, and solve logarithms without a calculator in Pre Calculus. Practical applications of the logarithmic equation also follow from previous skills. Students learn to calculate the pH of a solution, decibel voltage gain, intensity of earthquakes measure on the Richter scale, depreciation, and the apparent loudness of sound using logarithms.

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C. Culture: How has this topic appeared in the news?

One application of logarithmic equations is calculating the intensity of earthquakes measured on the Richter scale using the following equation:

R = \log(A/P)

where A is the amplitude of the tremor measured in micrometers and P is the period of the tremor (time of one oscillation of the earth’s surface) measured in seconds.

Reports of earthquake activity appear in the news often and are always accompanied by a measurement from the Richter scale. One such report can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20638696. As the story says, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan in December of 2012, and created a small tsunami. There were six aftershocks of this quake whose Richter scale measurements are also given. The article also explains how Japan has been able to enact an early warning system that predicts the intensity of an earthquake before it causes damage. All of the calculations given in this story, and almost all others involving earthquakes, involves the use of the Richter scale logarithmic equation.

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D. History: What are the contributions of various cultures to this topic?

The development of logarithms saw contributions from several different countries beginning with the Babylonians (2000-1600 BC) who developed the first known mathematical tables. They also introduced square multiplication in which they simply but accurately multiplied two numbers using only addition and subtraction. Michael Stifel, of Germany, was the first mathematician to use an exponent in 1544. He developed an early version of the logarithmic table containing integers and powers of 2. Perhaps the most important contribution to logarithms came from John Napier in Scotland in 1619. He, like the Babylonians, was working with on breaking multiplication, division, and root extraction down to only addition and subtraction. Therefore, he created the “logarithm” L of a number N defined as follows:

N = 10^7 (1-10^{-7})^L

for which he wrote \hbox{NapLog}(N) = L.

 Napier’s definition of the logarithm led to the following logarithmic identities that are still taught today:

\hbox{NapLog}(\sqrt{N_1N_2}) = \frac{1}{2} (\hbox{NapLog} N_1 + \hbox{NapLog} N_2)

\hbox{NapLog}(10^{-7} N_1 N_2) = \hbox{NapLog} N_1 + \hbox{NapLog} N_2

\hbox{NapLog} \left( 10^{-7} \displaystyle \frac{N_1}{N_2} \right)= \hbox{NapLog} N_1 - \hbox{NapLog} N_2

Henry Briggs, in England, published his work on logarithms in 1624, which included logarithms of 30,000 natural numbers to the 14th decimal place worked by hand! Shortly after, back in Germany, Johannes Kepler used a logarithmic scale on a Cartesian plane to create a linear graph the elliptical shape of the cosmos.  In 1632, in Italy, Bonaventura Cavalieri published extensive tables of logarithms including the logs of trig functions (excluding cosine).  Finally, Leonhard Euler made one of the most commonly known contributions to logarithms by making the number e = 2.71828\dots the base of the natural logarithm (which was also developed by Napier). While it is untrue, as is commonly believed, that Euler invented the number 2.71828\dots, he did give it the name e. He was interested in the number because he wanted to calculate the amount that would result from continually compounded interested on a sum of money and the number 2.71828\dots kept appearing as a constant in his equation. Therefore he tied e to the natural logarithm that was not as widely used because it did not have a base.

Logarithms were developed as a result of the contributions of many cultures spanning Europe and beyond, dating back over 4000 years.

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