Engaging students: Deriving the distance formula

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 Shama Surani. Her topic, from Geometry: deriving the distance formula.

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A1. What interesting word problems using this topic can your students do now?


By viewing examples on http://www.spacemath.nasa.gov, I came across the following word problem:


A beam of light, traveling at 300,000 km/sec is sent in a round trip between spacecraft located Earth (0,0), Mars (220, 59), Neptune (-3200, -3200), and back to Earth. If the coordinate units are in millions of kilometers, what are:


A)    The total round-trip distance (Earth, Mars, Neptune, Earth) in billions of kilometers?

B) The round trip time in hours?


I believe this problem is an interesting one to ask the students because I believe this question will pique the interests of the students especially if a video clip or visual is presented to grab their attention. This question allows me as a teacher to assess what the students know, and if they can apply the previous concepts learned to this new concept. By the end of the lesson, the students will be able to find out the total distance, and also apply previous concepts with distance = rate * time to figure out how many hours the round trip took.

By the end of the lesson, the students will be able to answer these questions. This problem builds on previous concepts taught so students can tie and see the connections among all topics.

Click to access 377674main_Black_Hole_Math.pdf



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A2. How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves you topic?

As a teacher, I can create an activity or project that involves the distance formula. I will provide a map of the United States, and have the students plan a trip across the USA covering at least 10 states, and making pit stops along the way of places they would want to visit, such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, etc. The students will have to find the distance of the total trip, as well as the distance between each pit stop. This activity helps the students practice the distance formula while allowing the students to become familiar with the United States and interesting locations to visit in the United States. The students will know be able to see how the calculating distance is related to real life.


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D1. What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic?

Pythagoras, Euclid, and Descartes are the three main mathematicians who are most responsible for the development of the distance formula.  Pythagoras is acknowledged by many scholars as being the one to have invented the distance formula although much record in history has been lost during this period. He was born around 570 B.C. in Samos. As a Greek mathematician and philosopher, he traveled to other parts of the world to learn from other civilizations, and he always was seeking the meaning of life. Pythagoras was amazed with distances as he travelled to Egypt, Babylon, Arabia, Judea, India, and Phoenicia. He is the one credited for one of the first proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, a2 + b2 = c2. The distance formula is derived from the Pythagorean theorem.

Euclid, known as the father of Geometry, also contributed to the distance formula. His third axiom states, “It is possible to construct a circle with any point as its center and with a radius of any length.” If one considers the equation of a circle, x2 + y2 = r2, one will notice that the distance formula is a rearrangement of the equation of a circle formula.

Renee Descartes was the one who developed the coordinate system that allows connection from algebra to geometry. He took the concepts of Euclid and Pythagoras in order to relate the radius to the center point of the circle. Essentially, Descartes came up with the equations used for circles and distance between two points that are used today.












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