Engaging students: Deriving the Pythagorean theorem

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 Gary Sin. His topic, from Geometry: deriving the Pythagorean theorem.

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

The Pythagorean Theorem is an extremely important topic in mathematics that is useful even when after the students graduate high school and proceed to college. As a student majoring in mathematics, I always like to explore the fundamental proofs of different theorems; I feel that if the student is able to derive a formula or theorem; it displays mastery over a mathematical topic.

As such, I will have the students work with a geometrical proof of the theorem. The students will be given 4 triangles with sides a, b, and c, and a square with sides c. I will instruct the students to fidget with the shapes and allow them to explore the different combinations that might lead to the theorem. As the class slowly figures out what combinations work, I will provide algebraic hints to the proof of the theorem. (including (a+b)^2 and c^2).

Finally, once a majority of the students figure out the geometric proof of the theorem; I will recap and reiterate the different findings of the students and summarize the geometric proof of the theorem.

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

Pythagorean Theorem is extremely useful when beginning geometry, it applies to all right triangles and one could use it too to find the area of regular polgyons as they are also made up of right triangles. The surface area and volumes of pyramids, triangular prisms also rely on the theorem. Another major topic in geometry is trigonometry, where the trigonometric ratios are introduced and they are also based on right triangles. The Law of Cosines is also derived from the theorem. The theorem is also used in the distance formula between 2 points on the Cartesian plane.

The theorem is also used in Pre-Calculus and Calculus. Complex numbers uses it (similar to the distance formula). The basis of the unit circle and converting Cartesian coordinates to polar coordinates or vice versa also utilizes the theorem. The fundamental trigonometric identity is also derived from the theorem. Cross products of vectors uses the theorem, the theorem can also be seen in Calculus 3 in 3 dimensional geometry and finding volumes of various shapes because the theorem still applies to planes.

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

The theorem uses algebra to represent unknown sides in a right triangle. The students should have also learned about the names of the different sides on a right triangle, namely the legs and the hypotenuse. Being able to identify which side is the hypotenuse is very important in understanding and applying this theorem. Additionally, the students must be able to recognize what a right angle is which will determine if a triangle is a right triangle or not.

Deriving the theorem requires knowledge on the multiplication of polynomials, and how they are factored out. The students also use powers of 2 in the theorem and should be aware of how to square 2 integers and what the product is equal to. In the case of a non Pythagorean triple, the student must be able to manipulate radicals and simplify them accordingly.

Finally, the student must be able to identify what variables are provided and know what unknown they have to solve for. The variables and unknown side requires basic knowledge on how algebra works and how to use equations and manipulate them accordingly to solve for an unknown.

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