Engaging students: Factoring quadratic polynomials

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 Kristin Ambrose. Her topic, from Algebra: factoring quadratic polynomials.

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In previous courses, students would have learned how to solve one-variable linear equations. These kinds of equations would involve variables to the power of one. Quadratic equations extend from this since they add a variable to the equation that is to the power of two. Since students learned how to solve linear equations, they may be curious as to how they can solve quadratic equations that extend from this. Factoring is a way for students to solve these kinds of equations.

Also, in previous courses students would have learned about the ‘factors’ of a number. When talking about numbers, the factors are the numbers you multiply to get another number. For example the positive factors of six are one and six, and two and three. Factoring quadratic polynomials follows this logic, except instead finding the factors of a number, students are finding the factors of an expression. For example, the factors of the expression x^2+4x+3 are (x+3) and (x+1). Just like how when we multiply two times three we get six, when we multiply (x+3) times (x+1) we get the expression x^2+4x+3.



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How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?


There is a popular video game called Angry Birds in which the user launches birds to try and knock down structures built by pigs. This game relates to factoring quadratics because if we were to plot the trajectory of the birds being launched on a graph, the result would be a parabola, in other words the graph of a quadratic function. Factoring quadratic polynomials is a way to find the solutions of a quadratic, and the solutions are where the parabola crosses the x-axis. In Angry Birds, we could set our x-axis to be the ground, and our solutions would correspond with where on the ground the bird would land, if nothing were to block its path. If students were given the quadratic equation for the parabola corresponding with the bird’s trajectory, students would be able to factor the equation to solve for where on the ground the bird would land.



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What are the contributions of various cultures to this topic?


Indian and Islamic cultures are two major cultures that have contributed to the topic of factoring quadratic polynomials. In Islamic culture, Al-Khwarizmi contributed to this topic by creating a way to solve quadratic equations by reducing the equations to one of six forms, which were then solvable. He described these forms in terms of squares, roots, and numbers, much like the terms we use today when factoring quadratic polynomials. The ‘squares’ related to what would today be our ‘x2’ term, the ‘roots’ related to the ‘x’ term, and the ‘numbers’ to the ‘c’ constant term. One of the forms he described was “squares and roots equal numbers,” in modern terms, “ax2 + bx = c.” Today, we factor quadratic polynomials of the form “ax2 + bx + c” which is similar to the form Al-Khwarizmi described. (Islamic Mathematics – Al-Khwarizmi)

In Indian culture, Brahmagupta contributed to the concept of factoring quadratics by introducing the idea that a number could be negative. This was significant because it meant a number like 9 could be factored into 32 or (-3)2. Since a number could have a negative factor, it followed that quadratic equations could have two possible solutions, since one solution could be negative. Factoring quadratic polynomials like we do today would be impossible without the knowledge that quadratic expressions can have two solutions. (Indian Mathematics – Brahmagupta)




“Islamic Mathematics – Al-Khwarizmi.” The Story of Mathematics. 2010. Web. 17 Sept. 2014. <http://www.storyofmathematics.com/islamic_alkhwarizmi.html&gt;.


“Indian Mathematics – Brahmagupta.” The Story of Mathematics. 2010. Web. 17 Sept. 2014. <http://www.storyofmathematics.com/indian_brahmagupta.html&gt;.





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