Recently, I announced that my paper Parabolic Properties from Pieces of String had been published in the magazine Math Horizons. The article had multiple aims; in chronological order of when I first started thinking about them:

Prove that string art from two line segments traces a parabola.

Prove that a quadratic polynomial satisfies the focus-directrix property of a parabola, which is the reverse of the usual logic when students learn conic sections.

Prove the reflective property of parabolas.

Accomplish all of the above without using calculus.

While I’m generally pleased with the final form of the article, the necessity of publication constraints somewhat abbreviated the original goal of this project: determining a pedagogically sound way of convincing a bright Algebra I student that string art unexpectedly produces a parabola. In this series of posts, I’d wanted to expand on the article with some pedagogical thoughts about connecting string art to parabolas for algebra students. After all, most mathematical studies of string art curves — formally known as “envelopes” — rely on differential equations or at least limits and calculus.

However, string art is simple enough for a young child to construct, and so this study was inspired by the quest of explaining this phenomenon using only simple mathematical tools.

The article linked above has further thoughts on this problem, including a calculus-free way of deriving the reflective property of parabolas. However, I think the article pretty much has all of my thoughts on this matter, and so I don’t think I need to elaborate upon them here.

This series of posts is dedicated to an inspired and inspiring Algebra I student who wanted to understand string art curves using tools that she could understand… even though she progressed much further into the mathematics curriculum by the time my article was published and this series of posts appeared on my blog.

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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