Engaging students: Vectors in two dimensions

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 Sarah McCall. Her topic, from Precalculus: vectors in two dimensions.

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What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

For such an applicable topic, I believe that it is beneficial to have students see how this might apply to their lives and to real world problems. I selected the following word problems because they are challenging, but I think it is necessary for students to be a little frustrated initially so that they are able to learn well and remember what they’ve learned.

1. A DC-10 jumbo jet maintains an airspeed of 550 mph in a southwesterly direction. The velocity of the jet stream is a constant 80 mph from the west. Find the actual speed and direction of the aircraft.

2. The pilot of an aircraft wishes to head directly east, but is faced with a wind speed of 40 mph from the northwest. If the pilot maintains an airspeed of 250 mph, what compass heading should be maintained? What is the actual speed of the aircraft?

3. A river has a constant current of 3 kph. At what angle to a boat dock should a motorboat, capable of maintaining a constant speed of 20 kph, be headed in order to reach a point directly opposite the dock? If the river is ½ a kilometer wide, how long will it take to cross?

Because these problems are difficult, students would be instructed to work together to complete them. This would alleviate some frustrations and “stuck” feelings by allowing them to ask for help. Ultimately, talking through what they are doing and successfully completing challenging problems will take students to a deeper level of involvement with their own learning.



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

I believe vectors are fairly easy to teach because there are so many real life applications of vectors. However, it can be difficult to get students initially engaged. For this activity, I would have students work in groups to complete a project inspired by Khan Academy’s videos on vector word problems. Students would split off into groups and watch each of the three videos on Khan Academy that have to do with applications of vectors in two dimensions. Using these videos as an example, students will be instructed to come up with a short presentation or video that teaches other students about vectors in two dimensions using real world applications and examples.




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How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?

Immediately when I see vectors, I think of one specific movie quote from my late childhood that I’ll always remember. The villain named Vector from Despicable Me who “commits crimes with both direction AND magnitude” is a fellow math nerd and is therefore one of my favorite Disney villains of all time. So of course, I had to find the clip (linked below) because I think it is absolutely perfect for engaging students in a lesson about vectors as soon as they walk in the door, and it is memorable and educational. I would refer back to this video several times throughout the lesson and in future lessons because it is a catchy way to remember the two components to vectors. This would also be great to kick off a unit on scalars and vectors, because it would get kids laughing and therefore engaged, plus they will always remember the difference between a scalar and a vector (direction AND magnitude!).  


  1. https://www.khanacademy.org/math/precalculus/vectors-precalc/applications-of-vectors/v/vector-component-in-direction
  2. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwj42PaGqojXAhXKSiYKHTvLD8oQFgguMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jessamine.k12.ky.us%2Fuserfiles%2F1038%2FClasses%2F17195%2FVector%2520Word%2520Problems%2520Practice%2520Worksheet%25202.docx&usg=AOvVaw1IHTinEQtGK4Ww1_JkBhHf
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOIe0DIMbI8

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