In this series of posts, I’d like to describe what I tell my students on the very first day of Calculus I. On this first day, I try to set the table for the topics that will be discussed throughout the semester. I should emphasize that I don’t hold students immediately responsible for the content of this lecture. Instead, this introduction, which usually takes 30-45 minutes, depending on the questions I get, is meant to help my students see the forest for all of the trees. For example, when we start discussing somewhat dry topics like the definition of a continuous function and the Mean Value Theorem, I can always refer back to this initial lecture for why these concepts are ultimately important.
I’ve told students that the topics in Calculus I build upon each other (unlike the topics of Precalculus), but that there are going to be two themes that run throughout the course:
- Approximating curved things by straight things, and
- Passing to limits
I’ve then quickly used these themes to solve two completely different problems: (1) finding the speed of a falling object at impact and (2) finding the area under a parabola. I can usually cover these topics in less than 50 minutes, sometimes in 35 minutes. Again, because I’m not immediately holding my students responsible for the contents of this introduction, I feel freer to move a little quicker than I would otherwise in the hopes of showing the forest for all of the trees.
I then ask the obvious question: what do these two questions have to do with each other. One involves the distance-rate-time formula. The other involves the areas of rectangles. At first blush, these two questions seem completely unrelated. And at second blush. And at third blush.
I tell my class that these two apparently unrelated questions are indeed related by something called the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Somehow, the process of finding the area under a curve is intimately related to finding an instantaneous rate of change. I then make a bold, eye-catching statement: The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus is one of the greatest discoveries in the history of mankind, period. And, at the ripe old age of 17, 18, or 19 years old, my students are now privileged to understand this great accomplishment.
This ends my introduction to Calculus I. I’ll then begin the more mundane development of limits on the way to formally defining a derivative.