Engaging students: Computing the determinant of a matrix

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: computing the determinant of a matrix.

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

 Students learn early in their mathematical careers how to calculate the area of simple polygons such as triangles and parallelograms. They learn by memorizing formulas and plugging given values into the formulas. Matrices, and more specifically the determinant of a matrix, can be used to do the same thing.

For example, consider a triangle with vertices (1,2), (3, -4), and (-2,3). The traditional method for finding the area of this circle would be to use the distance formula to find the length of each side and the height before plugging and chugging with the formula A = \frac{1}{2} bh. Matrices can be used to compute the same area in fewer steps using the fact that the area of a triangle the absolute value of one-half times the determinant of a matrix containing the vertices of the triangle as shown below.

First, put the vertices of the triangle into a matrix using the x-values as the first column and the corresponding y-values as the second column. Then fill the third column with 1’s as shown:


Next, compute the determinant of the matrix and multiply it by ½ (because the traditional area formula for a triangle calls for multiplying by ½ to account for the fact that a triangle is half of a rectangle, it is necessary to keep the ½ here also) as shown:

caitlin2Obviously, the area of a triangle cannot be negative. Therefore it is necessary to take the absolute value of the final answer. In this case |-8| = 8, making the area positive eight instead of negative eight.

The same idea can be applied to extend students knowledge of the area of other polygons such as a parallelogram, rectangle, or square. Determinants of matrices are a great extension of the basic mathematical concept of area that students will have learned in previous courses.

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

The history of matrices can be traced to four different cultures. First, Babylonians as early as 300 BC began attempting to solve simultaneous linear equations like the following:

There are two fields whose total area is eighteen hundred square yards. One produces grain at the rate of two-thirds of a bushel per square yard while the other produces grain at the rate of on-half a bushel per square yard. If the total yield is eleven hundred bushels, what is the size of each field?

While the Babylonians at this time did not actually set up matrices or calculate any determinants, they laid the framework for later cultures to do so by creating systems of linear equations.

The Chinese, between 200 BC and 100 BC, worked with similar systems and began to solve them using columns of numbers that resemble matrices. One such problem that they worked with is given below:

There are three types of corn, of which three bundles of the first, two of the second, and one of the third make 39 measures. Two of the first, three of the second and one of the third make 34 measures. And one of the first, two of the second and three of the third make 26 measures. How many measures of corn are contained of one bundle of each type?

Unlike the Babylonians, the Chinese answered this question using their version of matrices, called a counting board. The counting board functions the same way as modern matrices but is turned on its side. Modern matrices write a single equation in a row and the next equation in the next row and so forth. Chinese counting boards write the equations in columns. The counting board below corresponds to the question above:

1   2   3

2   3   2

3   1   1

26  34  39

They then used what we know as Gaussian elimination and back substitution to solve the system by performing operations on the columns until all but the bottom row contains only zeros and ones. Gaussian elimination with back substitution did not become a well known method until the early 19th century, however.

Next, in 1683, the Japanese and Europeans simultaneously saw the discovery and use of a determinant, though the Japanese published it first. Seki, in Japan, wrote Method of Solving the Dissimulated Problems which contains tables written in the same manner as the Chinese counting board. Without having a word to correspond to his calculations, Seki calculated the determinant and introduced a general method for calculating it based on examples. Using his methods, Seki was able to find the determinants of 2×2, 3×3, 4×4, and 5×5 matrices.

In the same year in Europe, Leibniz wrote that the system of equations below:




has a solution because

(10 \times 21 \times 32)+(11 \times 22 \times 30)+(12 \times 20 \times 31)=(10 \times 22 \times 31)+(11 \times 20 \times 32)+(12 \times 21 \times 30).

This is the exact condition under which the matrix representing the system has a determinant of zero. Leibniz was the first to apply the determinant to finding a solution to a linear system. Later, other European mathematicians such as Cramer, Bezout, Vandermond, and Maclaurin, refined the use of determinants and published rules for how and when to use them.

Source: http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/HistTopics/Matrices_and_determinants.html

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B. Curriculum: How can this topic be used in you students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

Calculating the determinant is used in many lessons in future mathematics courses, mainly in algebra II and pre-calculus. The determinant is the basis for Cramer’s rule that allows a student to solve a system of linear equations. This leads to other methods of solving linear systems using matrices such as Gaussian elimination and back substitution.  It can also be used in determining the invertibility of matrices.  A matrix whose determinant is zero does not have an inverse. Invertibility of matrices determines what other properties of matrix theory a given matrix will follow. If students were to continue pursuing math after high school, understanding determinants is essential to linear algebra.

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