Engaging students: Using a recursively defined sequence

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 Precalculus: using a recursively defined sequence.

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

            Recursion is heavily emphasized within the branches of computer science. The technique can be used more than just in arithmetic and geometric sequences for finding the next term. Within computer science, recursion techniques can be utilized for sorting algorithms. The content will be able to transfer easily. Instead of finding the previous term to use to find the current term, within sorting algorithms, a set of numbers is chunked into smaller and smaller sets such that the original set of numbers becomes sorted.

            We can take a deeper look at Merge Sort which is a recursive sorting algorithm. What occurs is the set of numbers repeatedly gets cut in half until there is only one element in the list. From there the elements are sorted in increasing order. Traversing back into the original size of the list with all of the elements contained except the final output is the list in increasing order.

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Students can inspect the algorithm visually and need not to understand the implementation of code to comprehend the functionality of recursion. Guiding the students towards the smallest part of the process which is the single element and from there rearranging the elements of the list.

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How has this topic appeared in high culture (art, classical music, theatre, etc.)?

            Recursively defined sequences influenced a renowned artist who is M.C. Escher. The concept of a sequence beginning at one point and continuing infinitely is how Escher exhibits recursion. Escher challenges the viewer of his work to determine the patterns from the artistic series.

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For example, when observing the piece Drawing Hands, a student can predict what the ‘base case’ of the artwork would be followed by the next steps of the drawing. The spectator of this piece can break it apart into smaller and smaller partitions of the whole. And once they reach a starting point, they can put together the whole picture once again.

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Similarly, students can view this piece titled Two Birds to follow the patterns. Without saying the name of the piece students can again predict the base case and determine how recursion techniques would be used for this sequence. Students can begin to learn how to think of how recursively defined sequences are applied through visual representations of M.C. Escher’s artwork.

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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 recursion by showcasing the YouTube video “Recursion: The Music Videos of Michel Gondry” by Polyphonic. Through this video, students can compare recursively defined sequences to music they listen to. The video starts with singular notes and then repeating the notes to create a rhythm. Compiling the initial sounds into something familiar through loops of samples and sound bites. This video goes into the repetitive patterns of the small chunks of sound are shown through visual representations with the music videos by Michel Gondry. In the music video “Star Guitar” by The Chemical Brothers, the video starts off with the listener on a train ride going through a landscape. Slowly patterns emerge as buildings uniquely correspond to the notes and rhythms within the song. With this YouTube video students obtain a great introduction to recursion and hopefully continue to find patterns of recursion to music they listen to in the future.


Greenberg I., Xu D., Kumar D. (2013) Drawing with Recursion. In: Processing. Apress, Berkeley, CA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4302-4465-3_8

Miller, B., & Ranum, D. (2020). 6.11. The Merge Sort — Problem Solving with Algorithms and Data Structures. Runestone.academy. https://runestone.academy/runestone/books/published/pythonds/SortSearch/TheMergeSort.html.


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