# Engaging students: Defining a function of one variable

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 Matthew Garza. His topic, from Algebra: defining a function of one variable. How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics and science?

Being able to define a function of one variable is necessary for creating a model that describes the most basic phenomenon in math and science. In math, understanding these parent functions is crucial to understanding more complicated functions and, by considering some variables as temporarily fixed, multivariable equations and systems of equations can be easier to understand. In science, we often observe functions of a single variable.  In fact, even if there are multiple variables coming into play, a good lab will likely control all but one variable, so that we can understand the relationship with respect to that single variable – a function.

Consider in science, for example, the ideal gas law: PV = nRT, where P is pressure, V is volume, n is the quantity in moles of a gas, R is the gas constant, and T is temperature.  This law, taught in high school chemistry, is not taught from scratch.  The proportional, single-variable functions that make up the equation are observed individually before the ideal gas law is introduced. Students will probably be taught Boyle’s, Charles’, Gay-Lussac’s, and Avogadro’s laws first. Boyle’s law states pressure and volume are inversely proportional (for a fixed temperature and quantity of gas).  This law can be demonstrated in one lab by clamping a pipette with some water and air inside, thus fixing all but two variables.  Pressure is applied to the pipette and the volume of air is measured using the length of the air column in the pipette.  Students must then evaluate volume V as a function of the single variable pressure P.  It should be noted that the length of the air column is measured, while the diameter of the pipette is fixed, thus volume must be calculated as a function of the single variable length.  Understanding the single variable, proportional and inversely proportional relationships is crucial to understanding the ideal gas law itself. How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic? Note: It’s not enough to say “such-and-such is a great website”; you need to explain in some detail why it’s a great website.

Generally speaking, Khan Academy has great videos to help understand math concepts.  Although it’s a little dry, this “Introduction to Functions” video is clear, concise, and touches on several ideas that I was having trouble tying in to every example.  This introductory video begins with the basic concept of a function as a mapping from one value to another single value.  The first examples it uses are a piece-wise function and a less computational function that returns the next highest number beginning with the same letter.  At first I didn’t like that these functions were discontinuous, but this actually gives something else to discuss.  The video links back prior knowledge, explaining that the dependent variable y that students are familiar with is actually a function of x, and represents the two in a table.  The last couple minutes of the video address the fundamental property that a function must produce unique outputs for each x, or it is a relationship. How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

One idea might be to examine any function in which time is the independent variable.  Basic concepts of motion in physics can supplement an activity – Have groups evaluate position and speed with respect to time of, say, a marble or hot wheels car rolling down a ramp.  Using a stop watch and marking distance on an inclined plane, students could time how long it took to reach certain points and create a graph over time of displacement.  This method might result in some students graphing time as a function of displacement, which could lead to an interesting discussion on independence and dependence, and why it might be useful to view change as a function of time.

Technology could supplement such a lesson as to avoid confusion over whether distance is a function of time or vice versa.  Using motion sensor devices to collect data, such as the CBR2, students can use less time collecting and plotting data and more time examining it.  Different trials resulting in different graphs can lead to discussion on how to model such motion as a function of time – letting an object sit still would result in a constant graph, something rolling down an incline will give a parabolic graph (until the object gets too close to a terminal velocity).

To add variety, students can examine what a graph looks like if they move toward and away from the CBR2 or try to reproduce given position graphs.  This may result in the same position at different times, but since an object can be in only one position at a given time, the utility of using position as a function of time can be represented. Sporadic motion, including changes in speed and direction (like moving back and forth and standing still) also allow discussion of piecewise functions, and that functions don’t necessarily have to have a “rule” as long as only one output is assigned per value in the domain.