Engaging students: Square roots

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 Jessica Martinez. Her topic, from Algebra: square roots.

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How has this topic appeared in the news?

There is a (sort of) holiday for square root days; sort of because square root days only come 9 time every century and this year we celebrated 4/4/16. Since it’s not as frequent as Pi Day, it’s a lesser known “holiday”, but even then, it still pops up in the news. I found this online article for a UK news site that described other square root-related fun facts in history. It also included a post from Good Morning America with the hashtag #squarerootday, which gave me this idea: I would like to encourage my students to participate in all of the fun square root-related activities that celebrate this day (if there was one that school year). The founder of square root day has suggestions that include but are not limited to: square dancing, drinking root beer out of square glasses, or even taking a drive on route 66. In the days leading up to this fantastic math-related day, I would consider giving my kids an extra credit point for posting a picture of themselves doing something square root related on the class twitter with the tag #squarerootday (or a post on some other class social media). If there wasn’t a square root day during that academic year, I still think it would be fun to tell my students about this holiday.


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

My students should have already learned about perfect squares and their multiplication tables up to 12 or 13, at least. For a simple refresher, I could have my students color/highlight perfect squares on multiplication tables. Then taking the square root of something is the inverse of creating perfect squares, unless what’s under the square root sign isn’t a perfect square. Then what’s under the radical is something that they need to divide into its prime factors so that they can simplify. My students should have also at least learned about prime numbers, if not prime factoring. A way to solve square roots would be pairing up the prime factors under the square root so that you can “take it out” from under the radical; for my students, I could have them think of the square root sign as a jail cell, and the only way that the numbers could “get out” of the cell is if they had a “prime partner” to escape with (i.e. a pair of 2s, a pair of 3s etc.).


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What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic?

So one of the oldest records of square roots in history would be The Old Babylonian tablet YBC 7289, which dates back anywhere from 2000-1600 BC. It depicts a square with two diagonals drawn and on the diagonals are numbers; when they are calculated, you get a very close approximation of the square root of 2 for the diagonal. Their value for the square root of two was about 1.41421297; I could have my students quickly calculate the square root of two (about 1.41421356) and mention to my students that this is pretty impressive for a civilization without modern day technology. The fact that they used clay tablets for math calculations shows how little they had to work with. Yet Babylon was also one of the most famous ancient cities in Mesopotamia; it’s mentioned multiple times in the bible and they were pretty advanced in mathematics for their area, despite the lack of resources we have today. They used a sexagesimal number system, which is base 60; they could solve algebra problems and work with what we now call Pythagorean triples; they could also solve equations with cubes.



A Visual Approach to Simplifying Radicals (A Get Out of Jail Free Card). (2012, January 15). Retrieved September 09, 2016, from https://reflectionsinthewhy.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/a-visual-approach-to-simplifying-radicals-a-get-out-of-jail-free-card/

Babylon and the Square Root of 2. (2016). Retrieved September 09, 2016, from https://johncarlosbaez.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/babylon-and-the-square-root-of-2/

Buncombe, A. (16, April 4). Square Root Day: There are only nine days this century like this. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/square-root-day-there-are-only-nine-days-this-century-like-this-a6967991.html

Fowler, D., & Robson, E. (n.d.). Square Root Approximations in Old Babylonian Mathematics: YBC 7289 in Context. Historical Mathematica, 366-378. Retrieved September 9, 2016, from https://math.berkeley.edu/~lpachter/128a/Babylonian_sqrt2.pdf.

Mark, J. J. (2011, April 28). Babylon. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.ancient.eu/babylon/


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