Engaging students: Law of Cosines

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 comes from my former student Allison Metlzler. Her topic, from Precalculus: the Law of Cosines.

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What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?


Real world word problems are an effective engagement because the students can actually relate to the events occurring in the problem. Below are two word problems where one deals with animal footprints and the other talks about trapeze artists.
1. Scientists can use a set of footprints to calculate an organism’s step angle, which is a measure of walking efficiency. The closer the step angle is to 180 degrees, the more efficiently the organism walked. Based on the diagram of dinosaur footprints, find the step angle B.
2. The diagram shows the paths of two trapeze artists who are both 5 feet tall when hanging by their knees. The “flyer” on the left bar is preparing to make hand-to-hand contact with the “catcher” on the right bar. At what angle (theta) will the two meet?
The problems were obtained from http://www.muhsd.k12.ca.us/cms/lib5/CA01001051/Centricity/Domain/547/Trig/13-6%20Law%20of%20Cosines.pdf.


green lineHow could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?


Activities are a great way to engage students. They require the students to explore the topic and make new discoveries. It can also benefit students who learn best by doing hands-on work. The activity, http://hilbertshotel.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/law-of-sinescosines-mapquest/ involves the law of sines, the law of cosines, and MapQuest. You will need a map of your school or just one of your school’s buildings. The students will then create triangles to figure out the length of different parts of the school. In order to do this, the students will have to use the law of cosines and sines. They will be able to measure the angles of the triangles using protractors. Then they can calculate the lengths of the sides of the triangles. You can then relate this activity to the real world job of surveyors. You would also need to point out to the students that because they are rounding their calculations of the distances and angles, there is a loss of accuracy. Also, you should note that in real life, surveyors would compute the distances using a different method in order to be completely accurate. This activity is very interesting and helps the students get a good understanding of the law of cosines.

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How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

A video is a great way to engage students because it’s visual and auditory which helps student understand concepts better. The video below uses Vanilla Ice’s song, Ice, Ice Baby, to introduce the law of cosines. I would play it from the start until1:51. At 1:51, the video starts introducing the idea of the law of sine. Besides just introducing the general idea of the law of cosines, it also shows how it’s derived from the Pythagorean Theorem. The video also clearly states that the Pythagorean Theorem only works with right triangles so that’s why we need the law of cosines- to help solve all triangles. It points out that you cannot only solve for a side of the triangle, but also the angles of the triangle. Another reason this video is engaging is that it is a well-known song that is catchy. Thus, the students will be able to remember the connection between the video and the concept of the law of cosines.



Apply the Law of Cosines (n.d.). In MUHSD.k12. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://www.muhsd.k12.ca.us/cms/lib5/CA01001051/Centricity/Domain/547/Trig/13-6%20Law%20of%20Cosines.pdf


Dahl, M. (Producer). (2009). Law of Cosines Rap- Vanilla Cosines [Online video]. YouTube. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wsf88ELFkk


Newman, J. (2013, January 10). Law of Sines/Cosines “Mapquest”. In Word Press. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://hilbertshotel.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/law-of-sinescosines-mapquest/


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