Engaging students: Using Pascal’s triangle

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 Lisa Sun. Her topic, from Precalculus: using Pascal’s triangle.

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

To introduce Pascal’s Triangle, I would create an activity where it involves coin tossing. I want to introduce them with coin tossing first before bringing in binomial expansions (or any other uses) because coin tossing are much more familiar to majority, if not all, students. Pascal’s Triangle can show you the probability of any combination of coin tossing (aka binomial distribution). Below are a few of the results and how they compare with Pascal’s Triangle:

Afterwards, I would ask the students guiding questions if they see anything interesting about the numbers that we gathered. I want them to notice that each number is the numbers directly above it added together (Ex: 1 + 2 = 3) and how those three numbers form a triangle hence, Pascal’s Triangle.

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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 already learned about binomial expansions. (Ex: (a+b)2 = a2+ 2ab + b2). This topic extends their prior knowledge even further because Pascal’s Triangle displays the coefficients in binomial expansions. Below are a few examples in comparison with Pascal’s Triangle:

If any of the students are having difficulties expanding any of the binomials or remembering the formula, they can remember Pascal’s Triangle. Using the Pascal’s Triangle for solving binomial expansions can aid the students when it comes to being in a stressful environment (ex: taking a test). Making a connection between their prior knowledge on binomial expansion and Pascal’s Triangle, I believe it would give the students a deeper understanding as to how Pascal’s Triangle was formed.



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C2: How has this topic appeared in high culture?

There’s a computer scientist, John Biles, at Rochester University in New York State who used the series of Fibonacci numbers to make a piece of music. How do the Fibonacci numbers relate to Pascal’s Triangle you ask? Well, observe the following:

As you can see, the sum of the numbers diagonally gives you the Fibonacci numbers (a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers).

John Biles composed a piece called PGA -1 which is based on a Fibonacci sequence. Note that on a piano, from middle C to a one octave C, there are a total of eight white keys (a Fibonacci number). Also, when you do a chromatic C scale which includes all the black keys, there are a total of five black keys (another Fibonacci number) which are also separated in a group of two and three black keys (see the pattern?). When you’re creating chords, let’s take the C chord for example, it consists of the notes C, E, and G. Notice that harmonizing notes are coming from the third note and the fifth note of the whole C scale. So following similar ideas on the use of these numbers/sequences, John Biles was able to compose music.

Here is John Biles full article: http://igm.rit.edu/~jabics//Fibo98/

Here is his composed song: http://igm.rit.edu/~jabics//Fibo98/PGA-1.mp3

The following may be a bit extra, but I also want to include this youtube link of this blogger who was very precise and compared the sequences to current pop music:

[I found this to be super interesting!]

How have different cultures throughout time used this topic in their society?

Hundreds of years before Blaise Pascal (mathematician whom Pascal’s Triangle was named after), many mathematicians in different societies applied their knowledge of the Triangle.

Indian mathematicians used the array of numbers to represent short and long sounds in poetic meters in their chants and conversations. A Chinese mathematician, Chu Shih Chieh, used the triangle for binomial expansions. Music composers, like Mozart and Debussy, used the sequence to compose their music to guide them what notes to play that would be pleasing to the audience. In the past, arithmetic composing was frowned upon however contemporary music to this day is now filled with them. When Pascal’s work on the triangle was published, society began to apply the knowledge of the Triangle towards gambling with dice. In the end, all cultures began to use Pascal’s Triangle similarly in their daily lives.

How can technology be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

The Youtube video above is a great tool for students who are visual learners. This video is to the point and clear with the message as to what Pascal’s Triangle is, the uses of it, and who aided in the discovery of it. I also believe the characters that were being used in this video would be appealing to students. This video was filled with facts that I want my students to know therefore, I would like them to follow along and write down important facts about Pascal’s Triangle. I would like to conclude that technology can be a “force multiplier” for all teachers in their classroom. Instead of having the teacher being the only source of help in a classroom, students can access web site, online tutorials, and more to assist them. What’s great is that students can access this at any time. Therefore, they can re-watch this video again once they’re home when they need a refresher or didn’t understand something the first time.







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