Engaging students: Introducing the parallel postulate

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 Enrique Alegria. His topic, from Geometry: introducing the parallel postulate.

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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 parallel postulate dates back to a man named Pythagoras of Samos. Pythagoras was a Greek philosopher that created a mysterious cult, the Pythagoreans. The purpose of the cult was to seek out a universal truth about numbers and shapes and became the foundation for Geometry. “The Pythagoreans concluded that the one universal quality of all things in the universe, the one thing that everything had in common, was that it was numerable and could be counted.” (Bryan 2014). Improving the work of Pythagoras and other mathematician predecessors was a man named Euclid who originated from ancient Greece. It was through Pythagoras’s key teachings, such as the Pythagorean Theorem, that began the fundamentals of Geometry.

Euclid wrote thirteen books named the Elements. These books were the entirety of Geometry. The Elements starts with a few simple definitions and postulates that were to be built off of each other to prove propositions. Through that work, Euclid changed the world. A masterpiece of logical thought and deductive reasoning.

Euclid caused controversy for years and years to come due to a specific part from the Elements. The parallel postulate which states, “That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.” Because this postulate makes drastic assumptions it is almost impossible to be proven. For that reason, the parallel postulate has caused so much controversy over the years. Euclid tried to prove all that he could without the parallel postulate and reached Proposition 29 of Book I. This topic further developed as mathematicians believed that the statement could not hold true. From there, several mathematicians are to follow on proving the Parallel Postulate.

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How did people’s conception of this topic change over time?

Over time the conception of the parallel postulate changed as many mathematicians tried to prove the postulate. Mathematicians wanted to prove that the postulate was not so much a postulate but a theorem. Several proofs were created, but none had succeeded in proving the postulate from the plane in Euclidean Geometry. As no mathematicians were able to do so they moved towards other dimensions or geometries.

The beginning of Non-Euclidean Geometries. Using the first four postulates of Euclid but create a new definition for the parallel postulate. For example, Nikolay Ivanovich Lobachevsky and János Bolyai were two mathematicians that held all postulates true but the parallel postulate true when discovering Hyperbolic Geometry. The parallel postulate has been modified as such, “For any infinite straight line  and any point  not on it, there are many other infinitely extending straight lines that pass through  and which do not intersect .” (Weisstein) This also led French mathematician Henri Poincaré to show the Hyperbolic Geometry was consistent through the half-plane model.

Many more geometries were able to follow a similar format of creating a parallel postulate equivalent to Euclid’s parallel postulate. “The parallel postulate is equivalent to the equidistance postulatePlayfair’s axiomProclus’ axiom, the triangle postulate, and the Pythagorean theorem.” (Szudzik). Despite the many trial and errors of trying to prove the parallel postulate, peoples’ conception of the topic was able to transform and discover new geometries where the respective parallel postulate can hold to be true.

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

Technology can be used to effectively engage students with the parallel postulate through a short series of YouTube videos by the channel Extra Credits. The five-part video series is called “Extra History: History of Non-Euclidean Geometry” with short seven to eight-minute videos which goes through the history of the parallel postulate. The video not only explicitly states what the parallel postulate is, but it goes through the history of how peoples’ conception has changed over time and how it has applied to today’s world and expands into physics.

The video series is produced with high-quality animation and narration. An engaging visual representation of the history of geometry that mathematicians have gone through to prove Euclid’s parallel postulate. Engaging in the countless trials and the amount of time that it has taken to go through this proof. Showcasing other discoveries that Euclidean Geometry has led to being Non-Euclidean Geometry. Lastly, the discoveries that Non-Euclidean Geometries will further lead to. Allowing students to join in on the questioning of the world as we know it.

Citations

Bryan, V., 2014. The Cult Of Pythagoras. [online] Classical Wisdom Weekly. https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/cult-of-pythagoras/

Szudzik, Matthew and Weisstein, Eric W. “Parallel Postulate.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource. https://mathworld.wolfram.com/ParallelPostulate.html

Weisstein, Eric W. “Non-Euclidean Geometry.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource. https://mathworld.wolfram.com/Non-EuclideanGeometry.html

https://mathcs.clarku.edu/~djoyce/java/elements/bookI/post5.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkvVR-sKJT8&list=PLhyKYa0YJ_5Dj3ZG-Qk9VfaCfo-Nh9S-2

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