Engaging students: Deriving the proportions of a 45-45-90 right 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 Morgan Mayfield. His topic, from Geometry: deriving the proportions of a 45-45-90 right triangle.

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

I included a lesson plan from Virgina Lynch of Oklahoma Panhandle State University. In her lesson plan, she includes a section where students draw a 45-45-90 triangle, or right-isosceles triangles, and then uses the variable x for the leg lengths to prove the proportion for students. Then, she uses a section where she has students cut out actual 45-45-90 triangles with 4-in leg lengths. Each student measures their hypotenuse to some degree of accuracy and reports their length. Lastly, Ms.Lynch averages the lengths and has students divide the average by root 2 on a calculator to show that the answer is incredibly close to 4.

My likes: These are two different styles of proving the 1:1:root 2 proportions of a triangle for students: one mathematical and the other more deductive after knowing the mathematical proof. This provides students with an auditory, tactile, and visual way to understand the proportion of the side lengths. I think that the tactile part can be the biggest thing for students. Rarely do we end up building a triangle and measuring its sides to show that this relationship makes rough sense in the real world.

My adaptation: In a geometry class, I would find the mathematical proof to be a fun exercise for students to flex their understanding of algebra, geometry, and the Pythagorean theorem. I would group students up and probably help them start connecting the algebra portion by giving them the leg length “x” and saying I want to know the length of the hypotenuse in exact terms. Group members can collaborate and use their collective knowledge to apply the understanding that a 45-45-90 triangle is isosceles and right, then use the Pythagorean theorem to find the length of the hypotenuse in terms of x.

Then, I would have some groups cut out 45-45-90 triangles of some leg length and other groups cut out 45-45-90 triangles of some other leg length to have more variety, but still show the root 2 proportion in our physical environment.

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

45-45-90 triangles are very helpful in understanding the unit circle. This may be taught at the geometry level or in precalculus. In a unit circle, our radius is 1, so when we want to know the sine or cosine of 45 degrees or 45+ \pi/2, then we can apply the relationship that we already know about 45-45-90 triangles. So, on the unit circle, build a right triangle where the hypotenuse connects the center to the circumference of the circle at a 45-degree angle from the x-axis. Since the triangle is both right and has one 45-degree angle, we know the other angle is 45 degrees as well. This should immediately invoke the sacred root 2 ratio, but this time we only know the length of the hypotenuse, which is 1, which is the radius. Thus, we divide the radius, 1, by root 2, and then get rid of the root 2 from the denominator to get \sqrt{2}/2 for both legs. Lastly, we apply our knowledge of sine and cosine to understand that sine of an angle in a right triangle, that is not the right angle, is the “length of the opposite side over the hypotenuse”, which is just \sqrt{2}/2 because we have the convenience of being in a unit circle.

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

The basis for understanding a 45-45-90 triangle takes its understanding from 8th grade math when students are introduced to the Pythagorean theorem and the beginning of the geometry course when students cover identities of isosceles triangles, mostly from a Euclid perspective. Even before that, students learn other basic things about triangles such as the interior angles add up to 180 degrees and that a right triangle has a 90-degree angle.

This is how students connect the three Euclid book I propositions: 5, 6, and 47. Students learn that from propositions 5 and 6 in a geometry class, isosceles triangles have two sides of equal length which imply the angles between those equal sides and the third sides are equal and vice-versa. So, a 45-45-90 triangle implies that it has two equal sides, which are the legs of the right triangle. Now, we apply proposition 47, the Pythagorean theorem because this is a right triangle, to then show algebraically the hypotenuse is x\sqrt{2} where x is the length of one of the legs.

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How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?

I find the topic of “Dynamic Rectangles” and “Dynamic Symmetry” very fascinating. This is frequently used in art, usually in drawing, painting, and photography. Jay Hambridge formalized the idea that classical art used Dynamic Symmetry which includes the ratio of 1:. This ratio is usually built inside of a rectangle or square to give very interesting, symmetrical focal points within a piece that could not be achieved within just any regular rectangle. The photothunk blog below details how the diagonals of the dynamic rectangles and the perpendiculars to the diagonals form a special symmetry that is lost when used in a rectangle that doesn’t have the 1:\sqrt{x} ratio. For example, I’ve included a piece of art by Thomas Kegler and a Youtube analysis of the piece of art that uses Root 2 Dynamic Symmetry.


What does this mean for the 45-45-90 triangles? Well, to build these dynamic rectangles, we must start off with a square. Think about the diagonal of a square. When we form this diagonal, we form a right triangle with two 45-degree angles. All squares are two 45-45-90 triangles. Now, using the length of the diagonal, which we know mathematically to be x\sqrt{2} where x is the length of one of the legs, we can build our dynamic rectangle and then build other dynamic rectangles because 1^2 + (\sqrt{x})^2 = x+1 . I’ve included a diagram I made in Geogebra to show off a way to build the root 2 dynamic rectangle using just circles and lines.

Starting with a square ABCD, we can place two circles with centers C and D and radii AC. Why AC? This is because AC is the diagonal of the square, which we know to be x\sqrt{2} where x is the length of one of the sides of the square. Now, we know our radii is equal to x\sqrt{2}. We can extend the sides of our square CB and DA to find the intersection points of the circles and the extended lines E and F. Now, all we must do is connect E to F and voila, we have a root 2 dynamic rectangle FECD.

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How have different cultures throughout time used this topic in their society?

This answer will be my most speculative answer using concepts of the 45-45-90 triangles. First, I must ask the reader to suspend the round world belief and act that we live on a relatively flat plane of existence. Our societies have been build around organizing land into rectangular and square shaped pieces of land. I will talk about the “Are” system which has shaped a lot of Western Europe and the Americas due to colonization by the European powers. You may have heard the term “hectare”, which is still popular in the United States. It is literally a mash up of the words “hecto-”, coming from Greek and meaning one-hundred and “are”, coming from Latin and meaning area. So, this is 100 ares, which is a measure of land that is 10 meters x 10 meters. That means a hectare is 100 meters x 100 meters.

Well, one would imagine that with Greek, Latin, and Western European obsession with symmetry, we would want to split these square pieces of land in half with many different diagonals, so it must have been useful to understand the proportions of the 45-45-90 triangle to makes paths and roads that travel from one end of the hectare to the other end efficiently while also utilizing the space and human travel within the hectare efficiently. Again, this is my speculation, but knowing that two 45-45-90 triangles form a square means that all squares and symmetry involve using this 1:\sqrt{2} ratio; they are inseparable.








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