Engaging students: Computing trigonometric functions using a unit circle

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 Alizee Garcia. Her topic, from Precalculus: computing trigonometric functions using a unit circle.

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

Being able to compute trig functions using a unit circle will be the base of knowledge for all further calculus classes, as well as others. Being able to understand and use a unit circle will also allow students to start to memorize the trigonometric functions. One of the most important things from pre-calculus to all other calculus classes was being able to solve trig functions and having the unit circle memorized was very useful. Although there are trig functions and values outside of the unit circle, the unit circle almost is like the foundation for trigonometry. Most, if not all, calculus classes after pre-calculus will expect students to have the unit circle memorized. Although it can be solved using a calculator, this will allow equations and problems to be solves easier with less thought when a student knows the unit circle. Even outside of calculus classes, the unit circle is one of many important aspects in math classes.

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

Before students learn how to compute trigonometric functions using a unit circle, they learn about the trig functions by themselves. This usually starts in high school geometry where students learn sine, cosine, and tangent, yet they do not use them in the way a unit circle does. Most schools only teach the students how to use the calculator to compute the functions to solve sides or angles for triangles. As students enter pre-calculus, they use what they have learned about the trig functions in order to apply them to the unit circle. This will allow students to see that using trig functions can still be used to solve triangles, but it can also be used to solve many other things. Once they learn the unit circle, they will see more examples in which they will apply the functions and make connections to real-world scenarios that they can also be applied to.

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

There are probably many simulations and websites that can help students compute trig functions using the unit circle, but I think something that will engage the students is a Kahoot or Quizziz that will help the students memorize the unit circle. Giving students an opportunity to apply what they learned into a friendly competition not only gives them practice but will also let them be engaged. Other technology resources such as videos or a website that is teaching the lesson does not really allow the students to apply what they know rather than just being lectured. Although some websites and technology can be useful, I personally, enjoy giving students the opportunity to work out problems as well as being engaged. Also, using calculators could be helpful to check answers but if they have a unit circle it might not be necessary unless they do not have the unit circle in front of them.

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