Engaging students: Computing logarithms with base 10

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 Andrew Sansom. His topic, from Precalculus: computing logarithms with base 10.

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D1. How can technology (YouTube, Khan Academy [khanacademy.org], Vi Hart, Geometers Sketchpad, graphing calculators, etc.) be used to effectively engage students with this topic?

The slide rule was originally invented around 1620, shortly after Napier invented the logarithm. In its simplest form, it uses two logarithmic scales that slide past each other, allowing one to multiply and divide numbers easily. If the scales were linear, aligning them would add two numbers together, but the logarithmic scale turns this into a multiplication problem. For example, the below configuration represents the problem: 14 \times 18=252.

Because of log rules, the above problem can be represented as:

\log 14 + \log 18 = \log 252

The C-scale is aligned against the 14 on the D-scale. The reticule is then translated so that it is over the 18 on the C-scale. The sum of the log of these two values is the log of their product.

Most modern students have never seen a slide rule before, and those that have heard of one probably know little about it other than the cliché “we put men on the moon using slide rules!” Consequently, there these are quite novel for students. A particularly fun, engaging activity to demonstrate to students the power of logarithms would be to challenge volunteers to a race. The student must multiply two three-digit numbers on the board, while the teacher uses a slide rule to do the same computation. Doubtless, a proficient slide rule user will win every time. This activity can be done briefly but will energize the students and show them that there may be something more to this “whole logarithm idea” instead of some abstract thing they’ll never see again.

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

Computing logarithms with base 10, especially with using logarithm properties, easily leads to learning to compute logarithms in other bases. This generalizes further to logarithmic functions, which are one of the concepts from precalculus most useful in calculus. Integrals with rational functions usually become problems involving logarithms and log properties. Without mastery of the aforementioned rudimentary skills, the student is quickly doomed to be unable to handle those problems. Many limits, including the limit definition of e, Euler’s number, cannot be evaluated without logarithms.

Outside of pure math classes, the decibel is a common unit of measurement in quantities that logarithmic scales with base 10. It is particularly relevant in acoustics and circuit analysis, both topics in physics classes. In chemistry, the pH of a solution is defined as the negative base-ten logarithm of the concentration of hydrogen ions in that solution. Acidity is a crucially important topic in high school chemistry.



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

Many word problems could be easily constructed involving computations of logarithms of base 10. Below is a problem involving earthquakes and the Richter scale. It would not be difficult to make similar problems involving the volume of sounds, the signal to noise ratio of signals in circuits, or the acidity of a solution.

The Richter Scale is used to measure the strength of earthquakes. It is defined as

M = \log(I/S)

where M is the magnitude, I is the intensity of the quake, and S is the intensity of a “standard quake”. In 1965, an earthquake with magnitude 8.7 was recorded on the Rat Islands in Alaska. If another earthquake was recorded in Asia that was half as intense as the Rat Islands Quake, what would its magnitude be?

First, substitute our known quantity into the equation.

8.7=\log I_{rat}/S

Next, solve for the intensity of the Rat Island quake.

S \times 10^{8.7} = I_{rat}

Now, substitute the intensity of the new quake into the original equation.

M_{new}=\log (I_{new}/S)


=\log (0.5S \cdot 10^{8.7}/S)

= \log (0.5 \cdot 10^{8.7})

= \log 0.5+ \log 10^{8.7}

=\log 0.5+8.7



Thus, the new quake has magnitude 8.393 on the Richter scale.

Earthquake data from Wikipedia’s List of Earthquakes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_earthquakes#Largest_earthquakes_by_magnitude)

Slide rule picture is a screenshot of Derek Ross’s Virtual Slide Rule (http://www.antiquark.com/sliderule/sim/n909es/virtual-n909-es.html)




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