Engaging students: Negative and zero exponents

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 Jennifer Elliott. Her topic, from Algebra: negative and zero exponents.

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  • Technology Engage
    • I found the website, https://www.mangahigh.com/en-us/math_games/number/exponents/negative_exponents. It is an interactive game that gives a brief explanation of what negative and zero exponents are. Then you can select the difficulty level and the number or questions you wish the children to try. If this a new topic introduced, then the student may miss several. That is ok. As a teacher, you are setting a ground level for the direction of your teach. At the end of the lesson, you can utilize the same game to check the students’ new level of understanding for the topic.

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  • Activity Engage
    • The students will engage in prior knowledge that might be needed to understand the idea behind negative and zero exponents. First I will make different notecards, some with definitions such as negative number, fractions, number line, and reciprocals and others. Then I will have some index cards with different exponents including positive, negative, and zero. The cards will have different values such as one might say 10^-1 and one might say 1/10. Every student will have a note card. I will have different sections set up in the room. Example would be definitions, 1, <1, and >1 and have students find which section they belong in. I could also have them find their card partner (different way of writing the same number) and the word matching the definition. Then maybe from there, that group find their counter-partner (I would maybe not use definitions for this part) such that the group with 10^-2 would find the group with 10^2. This would set up groups for them to explore the idea of negative and zero exponents.
      • This activity came from myself but I had some ideas from different pictures on Pinterest, but nothing in particular to source.)

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  • Curriculum Engage
    • To show how this might be used later in class, I will work on the idea of decay. The idea of decay can be introduced in science and history off the top of my head. Although the students might be years away from the idea of physics and decay value, this will be a fun way to engage students and hopefully recall the information when a lesson on decay comes in the future. The idea is found on several different websites and has to do with the idea of exponential decay using M&M’s. The idea is to create (or use one of the several choices) of a table to record the data from the trials. The group(s) count the total number of M&M’s. The total is the starting number for trial 0. Trial number would be the first column. The second column would be the number of M&M’s. For trial one, you would dump the bag/cup of candy and the student would remove all the M&M’s that do not have the M showing. Shake the candy up again, and dumb out. Continue with trials until you do not have any M&M’s left. Then the third column will be what percentage of the bag they have left (example maybe ½ of the M&M’s remain.) This activity will lead to the discovery of decay and how it uses zero and negative exponents. The starting point of trial 0 has us with “1” bag/cup of candy and then it will decrease from there. Just like x^0=1 which is great than x^-2=1/2 and so on. At the end, of the complete lesson the idea of using negative exponents in sports, sound, radioactive waste, and scientific notation will be a start of what that students will learn in other subjects in the future.



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1 Comment

  1. I had to look at the linked passysworld page. So much of it is so wrong it’s unbelievable.
    The simple minded definition of 2^3 as 2 times itself 3 times is a recipe for big problems later, when 2^0 rears it’s head. Better to define it as 1 multiplied by 2 three times. Then 2^0 is 1, and going down gets past 1 so simply, as it is “divide by 2 at each step”.
    What if multiplication, say 3 times 5, is defined as 5 plus itself 3 times ?


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