Engaging students: Finite geometric series

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 Caroline Wick. Her topic, from Precalculus: finite geometric series.

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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?

Finite geometric series was a concept that began over 4500 year ago in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used this method of finite geometric series mainly to “solve problems dealing with areas of fields and volumes of granaries” but used it for many other uses too, including the pyramids and math problems similar to those one might find on a STAAR test today (see D1, and F1).

There are seven houses; in each house, there are 7 cats; each cat kills seven mice; each mouse has eaten 7 grains of barley; each grain would have produced 7 hekat. What is the sum of all the enumerated things?

Years passed and finite geometric series were not revisited until around 350 BC by the Greeks, namely Archimedes, who came up with a solution to the math problem V=1/3Ah by finite calculations instead of limits. In addition, the idea that a finite sum could be procured from an infinite series was created in what is called the “Achilles Paradox” (D2, F2).

Years after this came Mathematicians in the middle ages, like Richard Swineshead or Nicole Oresme, who aided the world by further refining these series. This eventually led to the renowned Physicist Isaac Newton to “discover the geometric series” after studying mathematician John Wallis’s method of “finding area under a hyperbola” (F1). We can attribute almost all of what we know about geometric series’ to these fine gentlemen above, and they can only attribute what they know from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.

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How has this topic appeared in pop culture?

In 2002, PBS came out with a kids’ TV show called CyberChase, which is an entertaining cartoon about a bunch of kids who get pulled into “Cyber Space” to fight the bad guy, named Hacker, all while discovering and using different mathematical concepts that they learned along the way. Eleven seasons have passed since the shows beginning and it is still going strong, but one episode that still sticks out to me was their version of explaining geometric series to kids. The episode was called “Double trouble” and was the 9th episode of the second season. The specific geometric series involved in the episode was doubling, but the “real world” clip at the end stood out more vividly to me. After losing a chess game, the main character has to decide between paying the winner $5.00 or paying one penny for the first space on a chess board, then two pennies on the second, then four on the third, and continuing to double the previous number for every space on the entire chess board. Since the main character thought pennies were less, he decided on the second option, only realize after that he would have to pay way more than $5.00 in the end. This helped me understand the most basic geometric series when I was a kid, and has stuck with me to this day, so I am certain that it has and can stick in other students’ brains as well.

Here is the clip from the show:


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

The idea of finite geometric series is typically lightly introduced around students’ sophomore year of high school when they take geometry, but it is not really expanded upon/explained until students reach Pre-Calculus. The specific TEKS related to this topic are located under Pre-Calculus in (5), (A)-(E) (Source B1). The concept is brought up again in Math Models with Applications and is used for understanding interest on a balance over a period of time, or “loan amortization.” The ideas can also be used to help understand difference equations that involve heat and cooling over a period of time, and how to predict what the temperature might be in the future, which is a concept that is important in the realm of science too.

When students get to college, finite geometric series are expanded upon even more when they take Calculus classes, and they will learn how to prove a series is finite using induction when they get to their Discrete Classes and Real Analysis classes. In the business realm, they will have to use it to predict monetary sums regarding interest and possible growth in a company, so likely no matter where a student ends up, s/he will have to use this important mathematical concept everywhere.

D1, F1: http://mste.illinois.edu/courses/ci499sp01/students/ambucher/math306geo.pdf
D2, F2: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Achilles-paradox
B1: http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/tac/chapter111/ch111c.html

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