Engaging students: The field axioms

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 again comes from my former student Andrew Sansom. His topic, from Pre-Algebra: the field axioms of arithmetic (the distributive law, the commutativity and associativity of addition and multiplication, etc.).

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Algebra, from one perspective, is the use of numbers’ and operations’ properties to manipulate expressions. Some of these properties, called the field axioms, are crucial to being able to easily solve equations. These properties include associativity, commutativity, distributivity, identity, and inverse. To better appreciate how these properties are so helpful in algebra, it is useful to explore some examples of operations that do not obey these laws.

A1. What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

Example 1: The Average (Mean) is Not Associative

Part 1
A math teacher Mrs. Taylor instructs a class of three students: Alice, Bob, and Charlie. The class took an exam last week, but Charlie was sick and missed the test, so he took it today. Mrs. Taylor promised the class that if the class average on the exam was high enough, she would give them all candy. If Alice scored a 96 and Bob scored an 83, what was the class average (the average of those two students) after the first day of the exam?

mean(A,B)= \frac{(A+B}{2}=

Part 2
After Charlie took the exam (he scored an 89), Mrs. Taylor wanted to know if she had to calculate the average from scratch (i.e. add all three scores and divide by three), or if she could just average the previous mean and Charlie’s score (i.e. add your answer from part 1 and Charlie’s score and divide by 2), since she already had done some arithmetic and didn’t want to waste time. Would she find the same answer if she tried both methods? If not, which one is correct? Why?
mean(mean(A,B),C)= \frac{ \frac{A+B}{2} +C}{2} =

mean(A,B)= \frac{A+B+C}{3}=

Part 3
After her discovery in Part 2, Mrs. Taylor is curious if she first found the mean of Bob and Charlie’s grades, then averaged it with Alice’s grade, if it would be the same as an answer above. Is it? Why or why not?

mean(A,mean(B,C))=\frac{A+ \frac{B+C}{2} }{2}=

Part 4
What does it mean for an operation to be associative? How does this activity show that the average (mean) is not associative? Why does this mean you have to be extra careful when solving problems with averages?

Example 2: Subtraction is Not Commutative

Part 1
Mrs. Taylor likes to visit Alaska during the summer. When she arrived in Anchorage, it was 10F, but a snowstorm caused the temperature to drop by 21F. Write an equation with subtraction to find the new temperature the next day.

The next summer, when Mrs. Taylor arrives in Anchorage, it is 21F but the temperature drops 10F. Write an equation with subtraction to find the new temperature the next day.

Part 2
What does it mean for an operation to be commutative? Based on what you found in Part 1, is subtraction commutative? Why or why not? Why does that mean you need to be extra careful when solving problems with subtraction?


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B2. How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

Prior to pre-algebra, students should be proficient in arithmetic. In that study, they should have been exposed to fact families, which are simple examples of the inverse elements of addition and multiplication. The field axioms generalize these ideas to other objects. Students also should have realized that subtraction and division do not commute, though they likely never used that name. They also likely realized that addition by 0 or multiplication by 1 do not affect the value of the other element. By learning the names of these different properties, students build upon their prior experience to be able to label and acknowledge when these properties appear in other contexts.


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B1. How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

Although high school students will spend most of their time working in fields, instead of other algebraic structures such as non-Abelian groups or noncommutative rings, an appreciation and awareness of the field axioms while studying pre-algebra will prepare them for solving equations involving exponents (for example, intuitively questioning whether 2^x=x^2, which are trivially different, but not obvious to the novice). Furthermore, most Algebra II classes do briefly study Matrix Algebra, which is noncommutative (i.e. matrix multiplication does not commute), which causes many interesting conundrums for the uninitiated student while trying to solve problems. This appreciation of the field axioms prepares them for later study in Linear Algebra and Abstract Algebra. Outside of their math classes, vector fields form a critical part of physics, even at the high school level. Although most high school students do not realize it, they have to use the field axioms all the time to solve physics problems.

Use of the mean as a simple example of a non-associative operation courtesy of StackExchange user “Accumulation” on the thread “Non-Associative Operations” (https://math.stackexchange.com/a/2892589)


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