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 Rachel Delflache. Her topic, from Precalculus: using Pascal’s triangle.

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How does this topic expand what your students would have learned in previous courses?

In previous courses students have learned how to expand binomials, however after (x+y)^3 the process of expanding the binomial by hand can become tedious. Pascal’s triangle allows for a simpler way to expand binomials. When counting the rows, the top row is row 0, and is equal to one. This correlates to (x+y)^0 =1. Similarly, row 2 is 1 2 1, correlating to (x+y)^2 = 1x^2 + 2xy + 1y^2. The pattern can be used to find any binomial expansion, as long as the correct row is found. The powers in each term also follow a pattern, for example look at (x+y)^4:

1x^4y^0 + 4x^3y^1 + 6x^2y^2 + 4x^1y^3 + 1x^0y^4

In this expansion it can be seen that in the first term of the expansion the first monomial is raised to the original power, and in each term the power of the first monomial decreases by one. Conversely, the second monomial is raised to the power of 0 in the first term of the expansion, and increases by a power of 1 for each subsequent term in the expansion until it is equal to the original power of the binomial.


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Sierpinski’s Triangle is triangle that was characterized by Wacław Sieriński in 1915. Sierpinski’s triangle is a fractal of an equilateral triangle which is subdivided recursively. A fractal is a design that is geometrically constructed so that it is similar to itself at different angles. In this particular construction, the original shape is an equilateral triangle which is subdivided into four smaller triangles. Then the middle triangle is whited out. Each black triangle is then subdivided again, and the patter continues as illustrated below.

Sierpinski’s triangle can be created using Pascal’s triangle by shading in the odd numbers and leaving the even numbers white. The following video shows this creation in practice.



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What are the contributions of various cultures to this topic?

The pattern of Pascal’s triangle can be seen as far back as the 11th century. In the 11th century Pascal’s triangle was studied in both Persia and China by Oman Khayyam and Jia Xian, respectively. While Xian did not study Pascal’s triangle exactly, he did study a triangular representation of coefficients. Xian’s triangle was further studied in 13th century China by Yang Hui, who made it more widely known, which is why Pascal’s triangle is commonly called the Yanghui triangle in China. Pascal’s triangle was later studies in the 17th century by Blaise Pascal, for whom it was named for. While Pascal did not discover the number patter, he did discover many new uses for the pattern which were published in his book Traité du Triangle Arithméthique. It is due to the discovery of these uses that the triangle was named for Pascal.


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