Engaging students: Finding the volume and surface area of spheres

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 Cameron Story. His topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of spheres..

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

As a geometry teacher, manipulatives and visuals are important for conceptual understanding. Rather than handing out a formula sheet, it is far more rewarding to have your students derive volume and surface area formulas for themselves using some kind of physical representation. Not only is this more engaging for students, but the concepts behind the formula are emphasized. Yes, the volume of a sphere is V = \frac{4}{3} \pi r^3, but why? Where does the fraction come from? These are important questions.

An example of an activity that could be useful when teaching the volume of a sphere is best shown by Megan Millan in the following YouTube Video:

Here, students fill up hollow solids with water and find ratios between the volumes of several different shapes.

Assuming students already know the formulas for cones and cylinders, it would make it much easier to visualize those volumes with water. Through pure experimentation, students conclude that the volume inside of a cone (whose height is twice the radius) plus the volume of a sphere is equal to the total volume of a cylinder equal height and radius.

From the student’s own experimentation (and some specifically sized manipulatives), the formula is found instead of given.

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How has this topic appeared in the news?

An interesting news story by the Daily Galaxy reports that Saturn’s moon Titan has a methane cycle analogous to the water cycle on Earth; Titan has methane rain, methane clouds, and methane lakes. Ligeia Mare, Titan’s second largest methane lake, “occupies roughly the same surface area as Earth’s Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together,” (The Daily Galaxy, 2018). This news story is exciting as it hits on possible life outside earth, one that may even live in these liquid-methane lakes. As a math teacher, we can follow up this story with the following visual, illustrating the size of Earth compared the size of Titan. If these lakes are the same size, what fraction of the total surface area is the lake on Earth compared to the lake on Titan?

This can lead into how surface area changes as spheres grow or shrink. It also leads to some curiosity in the student. For example, what would Texas look like on Titan?


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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?

The Greek mathematician Archimedes discovered many things about solids and their properties long before calculus, and this is perfect for students in geometry; they can’t use calculus yet either. Archimedes is known for many mathematical discoveries, but in particular he is famous for finding that “…the volume of a sphere with radius r is two-thirds that of the cylinder in which it is inscribed,” (Toomer, 2018). This fact leads directly to the standard formula for the volume of a sphere: V = \frac{4}{3}\pi r^3. Supposedly, Archimedes was proud enough of this discovery to “leave instructions for his tomb to be marked with a sphere inscribed in a cylinder,” (Toomer, 2018).


What I like about this bit of history is that your students can discover this formula on their own with some support from the teacher. The great mathematician Archimedes found the same formula and found it so important that he had it be inscribed in his final resting place, so your students will have a sense of pride knowing that they overcame the same challenge that only the best mathematicians from 2,000 years ago could tackle.



YouTube video by Megan Millan – “Cylinder, Cone, and Sphere Volume” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZkhnIzBC_k

Toomer, Gerald J. “Archimedes.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 28 Mar. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Archimedes#ref=ref383380&tocpanel=sectionId~toc214869,tocId~toc214869.

“Cassini’s Final Encounter with Saturn’s Giant Moon Titan –‘Like the Early Earth.’” The Daily Galaxy, The Daily Galaxy, 14 Sept. 2018, dailygalaxy.com/2018/09/cassinis-final-encounter-with-saturns-giant-moon-titan-like-the-early-earth/.

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