Engaging students: Using right-triangle trigonometry

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 Precalculus: using right-triangle trigonometry.

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

Most right-angle trigonometry word problems involve giving two measurements of a triangle (angle, sides or both) and asking the students to solve for the missing piece. I argue that these problems are fine for practice, but one has to admit these problems encourage “plugging and chugging” along with their formula sheets.

To make things interesting, I would use something along the lines of this word problem from purplemath.com:

“You use a transit to measure the angle of the sun in the sky; the sun fills 34′ of arc. Assuming the sun is 92,919,800 miles away, find the diameter of the sun. Round your answer to the nearest mile,” (Stapel, 2018).

This is incredible! Using trigonometry, students can find out the diameter of the entire sun just by knowing how far away it is and how much of the sky the sun takes up. If you were to use this word problem in a experimental type of project, I strongly recommend using the moon for measurement instead; you can probably guess why measuring the sun in the sky is a BAD idea.


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What are the contributions of various cultures to this topic?

One amazing culture to contribute to the study of triangles and trigonometry were the Ancient Babylonians, who lived in what is now Iraq about 4,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found clay tablets from 1800 BC where the Babylonians carved and recorded various formulas and geometric properties. There were several such tablets found to have been lists of Pythagorean triples, which are integer solutions to the famous equation a^2+b^2=c^2.

The Greeks, while going through their own philosophical and mathematical renaissance, gave the namesake for trigonometry. Melanie Palen, writer for the blog Owlcation, makes is very clear why trigonometry “… sounds triangle-y.”  The word trigonometry is derived from two Greek words – ‘trigonon’ which means ‘triangle’ and ‘metron’ meaning ‘measure.’ “Put together, the words mean “triangle measuring”” (Palen, 2018).

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

In the YouTube video “Tattoos on Math” by the YouTube channel 3Blue1Brown (link: https://youtu.be/IxNb1WG_Ido), Grant Sanderson offers a unique perspective on the six main trigonometric functions. In the video. Grant explains how his friend Cam has the initials CSC, which is how we notationaly represent the cosecant function. Not only is this engaging because most students wouldn’t even think of seeing tattoos in math class, but also because Grant always backs up the mathematical content in his videos with beautiful animations.

Students know how sine and cosine functions are represented geometrically; these are just the “legs” of a right-angled triangle. Most students, however, only see the other four trigonometric functions as formulas to be solved. However, as Grant cleverly explains and visualizes in this video, all of these functions have geometric representations as well when paired with the unit circle. This video (moreover, this entire YouTube channel) can be helpful to those visual-learning students who need more than a formula to be convinced of something like the cosecant function.



3Blue1Brown YouTube Video: https://youtu.be/IxNb1WG_Ido

Palen, Melanie. “What Is Trigonometry? Description & History of Trig.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 25 July 2018, owlcation.com/stem/What-is-Trigonometry.

Stapel, Elizabeth. “Right-Triangle Word Problems.” Purplemath, 2018, http://www.purplemath.com/modules/rghtprob.html

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