Engaging students: Using Pascal’s triangle

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 Jaeda Ransom. Her topic, from Precalculus: using Pascal’s triangle.

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

A great activity that involves Pascal’s Triangle would be the sticky note triangle activity. For this activity students will be recreating an enlarged version of Pascal’s Triangle. To complete this activity students will need a poster of Pascal’s Triangle, poster board, markers, sticky notes, classroom wall (optional), and tape (optional). The teacher’s role is to show students Pascal’s Triangle, along with an explanation of how it was made. Students will be working in pairs and grabbing the necessary materials needed to complete this activity.On the poster board the students will recreate Pascal’s Triangle. Students will write a number 1 on a sticky note and place it at the top of the posterboard, they will then write 2 number 1’s on a sticky note and place it directly under. The students will continue recreating the triangle on their poster board until they run out of space. You can also consider having students use smaller sticky notes so that students are engaged with creating more rows.green line

What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic?

Pascal’s Triangle was named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal. At just the age of 16 years old Pascal wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry marking him as a child prodigy. Amongst that, Pascal also corresponded with other mathematicians on probability theory, which vastly encouraged the development of modern economics and social science. Pascal was also one of the first two inventors of the mechanical calculator when he started pioneering work on calculating machines, these were called Pascal’s calculators and later Pascalines. Pascal impressively created and invented all of this as a teenager. Though the Pascal Triangle was named after Blaise Pascal, this theory was established well before Pascal in India, Persia, China, Germany, and Italy. As a matter of fact, in China they still call it the Yang Hui’s triangle, named after Chinese mathematician Yang Hui who presented the triangle in the 13th century, though the triangle was known in China since the early 11th century.

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

This topic can be used in my students future mathematics course to introduce binomial expansions, where it is known that Pascal’s Triangle determines the coefficients that arise in binomial expansion. The coefficients aᵢ in a binomial expansion represents the number of row n in the Pascal’s Triangle. Thus, a_i = \displaystyle {n \choose i}.

Another useful application of this topic is in the calculations of combinations. The equation to find the combination is also the formula to find a cell for Pascal’s Triangle. So, instead of performing the calculations using the equation a student can simply use Pascal’s Triangle. In doing this you can continue a lesson over probability or even do an activity using Pascal’s Triangle while implicating probability questions.




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