Engaging students: Graphing parabolas

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 Irene Ogeto. Her topic, from Algebra: graphing parabolas.

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B2. How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

In previous courses, students should have learned about linear functions of the form y = mx + b. Parabolas are functions of the form y = a(x-h) + k. Graphing parabolas extends their thinking because it allows to students to see the graph of a function that is different from the graph of a line. Students can explore the similarities and differences between linear functions and quadratic functions. Students can apply the same logic they used when graphing linear functions by making a table and use the points to plot the graph. Students can use the graph of parabolas to determine the equation of the quadratic function. Students can apply transformations of graphs such as reflecting, stretching or compressing to parabolic functions as well. Graphing parabolas allows students to explore concepts they previously learned such as parent functions, y-intercepts, x-intercepts, and symmetry.

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C2. How has this topic appeared in high culture (art, classical music, theatre, etc.)?

Parabolic curves are all around us in buildings, churches, restaurants, homes, schools and other places. Parabolas are apparent in numerous places in architecture. One example where parabolic curves can be found in architecture is in suspension bridges such as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, the Golden Gate Bridge in California, or the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. Suspension bridges are mainly used to carry loads over a long distance and most suspension bridges are lengthy in distance. In suspension bridges, cables, ropes or chains are suspended throughout the road. The cables under tension form the parabolic curve. The towers and hangers are used to support the cables throughout the bridge. Seeing how parabolas appear in high culture will allow students to make a connection between math and the things that may see around them. Hopefully the students can see that math, specifically parabolas in this case are not only found in the classroom.

bridge1 bridge2


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E1. How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], VI Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

This YouTube video, “Water Slide Stunt,” is a great way to introduce students to graphing parabolas. It allows students to see the curve that parabolic functions make. In addition, it gives students an example of a real-world situation where projectile motion and parabolic functions can be seen. This video can be used at the beginning of a lesson on graphing parabolas. This video is engaging because it gets the students thinking about projectile motion and it shows how math can be related to different things in our society. In addition, students can also look up this video on YouTube on their own time and share with others.





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