Engaging students: Graphing the sine and cosine functions

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 comes from my former student Jessica Bonney. Her topic, from Precalculus: graphing the sine and cosine functions.

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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?


A fun activity for students to learn how to graph the sine and cosine function would be having them build the graph using spaghetti and yarn. Students would start out with a simple warm-up to help them recall the different values of sine and cosine on the unit circle depending on the given angle. After the warm-up, I would then pair students off into groups of two and have them create the graphs, one creating the sine graph and the other creating the cosine graph. The first step in this activity would be for students to take their yarn and wrap it around the unit circle, marking each significant angle on the yarn with a marker. Next, students will create the x and y-axis on their paper, making the x-axis along the center of the paper (labeling it Θ) and the y-axis about 1/3 of the way from the left-end of the paper (labeling it either cosΘ or sinΘ). They then lay the yarn on the x-axis, with the end on the origin, which represents 0 radians, and using the marks they made on the yarn they will mark and label each point on the x-axis. Going back to the unit circle, students will then measure the major angles of either sine or cosine with spaghetti. This part is used to help solidify their understanding that the values of x and y correspond to cosine and sine. After measuring and cutting the spaghetti, students will then glue the spaghetti down to the matching angle on the coordinate plane. Once they have finished gluing their pasta down, students will take a marker and draw the curve. To end the lesson, I would have the students do a think-pair-share, answering the following question: Why is the function curve wider that the unit circle? After, I would have students compare their graphs and demonstrate how they found their graph.


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How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?


Graphing the sine and cosine functions is a topic that students will carry on with them throughout the rest of their future science and mathematics courses. For starters, they will need to know how to do this for all advanced calculus or trigonometry classes they will take in high school or even in college. An example of this would be, when the students learn how to derive the tangent, cotangent, secant, and cosecant functions and graphs. Next, students will use this more in depth in their future physics courses. They will be able to relate waveforms and vibrations to that of specific sine and cosine graphs. Vibrations are graphs with the equations y=sin(t) or y=cos(t), and the time needed for one oscillation across the x-axis is referred to as a period. Waveforms are graphs with the equations y=sin(x) or y=cos(x), and the distance needed for one oscillation across the x-axis is referred to as a wavelength. As you can see, this particular topic in pre-calculus is an important piece in laying the foundation in their future academics and beyond.




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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?


            For starters, the word trigonometry comes from the Greek word trignon, meaning “triangle”, and metron, meaning “to measure.” Before the 16th century, trigonometry was mainly used for computing the unaccounted for parts of a triangle when the other parts were given. When it comes to ancient civilizations, Egyptians had a collection of 84 algebra, arithmetic, and geometry problems called the Rhind Papyrus. This showed that the Egyptians had some knowledge about the triangle, almost like a “pre-trigonometry”. It wasn’t until the Greeks, that trigonometry began to make sense. Hipparchus was the first to construct a table of the values of trigonometric functions. The next key contribution to trigonometry as we know it came from India. The author of the Aryabhatiya used words for “chord” and “half-chord” which was later shortend to jya or jiva. Following this, Muslim scholars translated the words into Arabic, which was then translated into Latin. An English minister, Edmund Gunter, first used the shortened term that we know, sin, in 1624. In 1614, John Napier invented logarithms, the final major contribution of classical trigonometry.









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