Engaging students: Using a recursively defined sequence

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 Austin DeLoach. His topic, from Precalculus: using a recursively defined sequence.

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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?
One activity that would be interesting to introduce recursion would be Fibonacci’s rabbit problem. In his book, Liber Abaci, Fibonacci introduced a problem where you start with one young pair of rabbits and try to find out how many rabbits you would have after a year. Every month, a grown pair of rabbits can give birth to a new pair, and it only takes one month for a young pair to grow up and be able to reproduce on their own, and the rabbits also never die. This is one of the most popular recursive sequences (the Fibonacci sequence), and, by itself, can be solved without a prior knowledge of recursion, but is a very good way to introduce the idea once the students begin to analyze the pattern of how many pairs of rabbits there are after each month. This problem is laid out in this video, https://youtu.be/sjQlW6cH3Ko but it is not necessary to show the video to introduce the problem.

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

One major place that a solid grasp of recursion can be used is in computer programming courses. Although not everyone takes these, they are becoming increasingly popular and the field is not likely to shrink any time soon. In programming, there are certain things that can either only be written recursively (as opposed to explicitly) or at least ones that are simpler to write and understand with recursion than with an explicit algorithm. There are also times, depending on the language and content, that a recursive function can be more efficient. Because of this, an understanding of recursion is becoming increasingly important for more people, and the ability to write and understand how it works is practically becoming necessary. So, even though not every student will go on to take computer science, many will, and the basic idea is still important to understand.

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

There is a series of Khan Academy videos on recursively defined sequences online. The first one is https://youtu.be/lBtb30SjU2Q and it shows how to read and understand what the basic frame for recursion is. Although Khan Academy videos are not always the most engaging for all students, they do work for many because of their consistent structure. This video in particular is about recursive formulas for arithmetic sequences. Without mentioning the vocabulary yet, the video does introduce the idea of a base case and the method for finding subsequent values. The video both shows how to look at a list of values and determine the recursive definition, as well as how to understand the recursive definition if that is what you are given. For a three minute video, it does a very good job of introducing important topics for recursive series and explaining the basic ideas so that students have a framework to build on later when more complex recursively defined sequences are introduced.

1. https://youtu.be/sjQlW6cH3Ko
2. https://youtu.be/lBtb30SjU2Q
3. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/recursive-functions/

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