Engaging students: Verifying trigonometric identities

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 Tracy Leeper. Her topic, from Precalculus: verifying trigonometric identities.

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Many students when first learning about trigonometric identities want to move terms across the equal sign, since that is what they have been taught to do since algebra, however, in proving a trigonometric identity only one side of the equality is worked at a time. Therefore my idea for an activity to help students is to have them look at the identities as a puzzle that needs to be solved. I would provide them with a basic mat divided into two columns with an equal sign printed between the columns, and give them trig identities written out in a variety of forms, such as \sin^2 \theta + \cos^2 \theta on one strip, and 1 written on another strip. Other examples would also include having \tan^2 \theta on one, and \sin^2 \theta/\cos^2 \theta on another. The students will have to work within one column, and step by step, change one side to eventually reflect the term on the other side, and each strip has to be one possible representation of the same value. By providing the students with the equivalent strips, they will be able to construct the proof of the identity. I feel that giving them the strips will allow them to see different possibilities for how to manipulate the expression, without leaving them feeling lost in the process, and by dividing the mat into columns, they can focus on one side, and see that the equivalency is maintained throughout the proof. The students would need to arrange the strips into the correct order to prove the left hand side is equivalent to the right hand side, while reinforcing the process of not moving anything across the equal sign.



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Trigonometry identities are used in most of the math courses after pre-calculus, as well as the idea of proving an equivalency. If the students learn the concept of proving an equivalency that will help them construct proofs for any future math courses, as well as learning to look at something given, and be able to see it as parts of a whole, or just be able to write it a different way to assist with the calculations. If students learn to see that

1 = \sin^2 x + \cos^2 x = \sec^2 x - \tan^2 x = \csc^2 x - \cot^2 x,

their ability to manipulate expressions will dramatically improve, and their confidence in their ability will increase, as well as their understanding of the complexities and relations throughout all of mathematics. The trigonometric identities are the fundamental part of the relationships between the trig functions. These are used in science as well, anytime a concept is taught about a wave pattern. Sound waves, light waves, every kind of wave discussed in science are sinusoidal wave. Anytime motion is calculated, trigonometry is brought into the calculations. All students who wish to progress in the study of science or math need to learn basic trigonometric identities and learn how to prove equivalency for the identities. Since proving trigonometric identities is also a practice in logical reasoning, it will also help students learn to think critically, and learn to defend their conjectures, which is a valuable skill no matter what discipline the student pursues.



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For learning how to verify trigonometric identities, I like the Professor Rob Bob (Mr. Tarroy’s) videos found on youtube. He’s very energetic, and very thorough in explaining what needs to be done for each identity. He also gives examples for all of the different types of identities that are used. He is very specific about using the proper terms, and he makes sure to point out multiple times that this is an identity, not an equation, so terms cannot be transferred across the equal sign. He also presents options to use for a variety of cases, and that sometimes things don’t work out, but it’s okay, because you can just erase it and start again. I also like that he uses different colored chalk to show the changes that are being made. He is very articulate, and explains things very well, and makes sure to point out that he is providing examples, but it’s important to remember that there are many different ways to prove the identity presented. I enjoyed watching him teach, and I think the students would enjoy his energy as well.


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