Engaging students: Arithmetic sequences

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 Erick Cordero. His topic, from Precalculus: arithmetic sequences.

“What interesting word problems using this topic can your students do now?”

There are many word problems we can do with arithmetic sequences but I am going to give one example that I believe students will understand. For this example, lets suppose that John Q, a pre-calculus student, has just bought a new phone from apple, but because of this new upgrade, Q’s parents are concern with the sum of money they will be paying for his monthly bill. Q’s first bill happens to be \$65, his total after the second bill is \$130, after the third bill the running sum is \$195, if this pattern continues, how many months will it take for the total to reach \$780? To solve this problem we would write the terms in a sequence starting with the first term being \$65 and up to three more terms. After writing out a few terms, I would expect the students to find the common difference between the terms and then compute the slope of the terms (I say slope because I hope they can see that this pattern is linear and therefore we can model the data using a linear equation and not just use the formula for arithmetic sequence but rather derive one ourselves). Then just like the students did in algebra one, they can use the point slope formula to come up with an equation for the sequence. I would explain to the students that now that we have the formula we can easily find the nth term that contains our sum, and this parallels the same process as having an x value and finding a corresponding y value and by using this process I can assure the students that the methods they learned in algebra are still important in pre-calculus.

“How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics?”

Sequences and equations is a very important topic in mathematics, and unfortunately many students that take pre-calculus in high school will never get to experience how sequences evolve from simple arithmetic sequences to the more powerful ones in calculus II. Sequences are often overlook by students in pre-calculus (high school) because it is different from what they have encountered in their math career thus far, but maybe if we show students how this topic evolves in calculus II then they will pay more attention to it (Or they will forget it more since many students will not take calculus II). But from an educators’ standpoint, we understand how important sequences are. In calculus II teachers teach students how the elementary ideas they learned in pre-calculus are now used in calculus applications. One of these ideas is called a power series. Power series are fundamental to the study of calculus because they provide a way to represent some of the most important functions in our field. Power series are also useful in physics and chemistry. We also have Taylor Series, which have been regarded by some as the most interesting topic in calculus II. It is here, in calculus II where we see the true power of sequences and for some of us, that random topic in pre-calculus about sequences starts to make sense. Sequences is a topic that in rooted deep in the heart of mathematics and we should tell our students in pre-Cal, or algebra, how important this topic is as they go deeper into their math or science careers.

“How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?”

One website that I have often visit is Khan Academy, and I would encourage my students to do the same. I like this website because unlike some of the YouTube videos, these videos are more engaging and interesting. The person doing the videos is also more professional and has an understanding of mathematics beyond some of the YouTube clips I have encountered. The quality of this website is the best I have seen. I also like how Sal Khan (the person doing the videos) uses a lot of colors in his videos because it helps the students distinguish information. This is another reason why YouTube is sometimes not a great idea. Some of the videos are of people solving math problems on a white board, if that’s the point then why show the clip in the first place? Students do not want to see that, I will do enough of that. I have said enough bad things about YouTube, and hence it is only fair that I now show something positive from it.

The above is a YouTube clip from Khan Academy where Khan does a problem trying to find the 100th term of a sequence. Khan Academy is great place were students can see more examples of certain classroom topics but of course this is not something to replace classroom work but rather another option to engage students with.

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