Engaging students: Computing the cross product of two vectors

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 Chi Lin. Her topic, from Precalculus: computing the cross product of two vectors.

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

I found one of the real-life examples of the cross product of two vectors on a website called Quora. One person shares an example that when a door is opened or closed, the angular momentum it has is equal to r \times p, where p is the linear momentum of the free end of the door being opened or closed, and r is the perpendicular distance from the hinges on which the door rotates and the free end of the door. This example gives me an idea to create an example about designing a room. I try to find an example that closes to my idea and I do find an example. Here is the project that I will design for my students. “If everyone here is a designer and belongs to the same team. The team has a project which is to design a house for a client. Your manager, Mr. Johnson provides a detail of the master room to you and he wants you to calculate the area of the master room to him by the end of the day. He will provide every detail of the master room in three-dimension design paper and send it to you in your email. In the email, he provides that the room ABCD with \vec{AB} = \langle -2,2,5 \rangle and \vec{AD} = \langle 5,6,3 \rangle. Find the area of the room  (I will also draw the room (parallelogram ABCD) in three dimensions and show students).”




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

This topic is talking about computing cross product of two vectors in three dimensions. First, students should have learned what a vector is. Second, students should know how to represent vectors and points in space and how to distinguish vectors and points. Notice that when students try to write the vector in space, they need to use the arrow. Next, since we are talking about how to distinguish the vectors and the points, here students should learn the notations of vectors and what each notation means. For example, \vec{v} = 1{\bf i} + 2 {\bf j} + 3 {\bf k}. Notice that 1{\bf i} + 2 {\bf j} + 3 {\bf k} represents the vectors in three dimensions. After understanding the definition of the vectors, students are going to learn how to do the operation of vectors. They start with doing the addition and scalar multiplication, and magnitude. One more thing that students should learn before learning the cross product which is the dot product. However, students should understand and master how to do the vector operation before they learn the dot product since the dot product is not easy. Students should have learned these concepts and do practices to make sure they are familiar with the vector before they learn the cross products.




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How did people’s conception of this topic change over time?

Most people have the misconception that the cross product of two vectors is another vector. Also, the majority of calculus textbooks have the same misconception that the cross product of two vectors is just simply another vector. However, as time goes on, mathematicians and scientists can explain by starting from the perspective of dyadic instead of the traditional short‐sighted definition. Also, we can represent the multiplication of vectors by showing it in a geometrical picture to prove that encompasses both the dot and cross products in any number of dimensions in terms of orthogonal unit vector components. Also, by using the way that the limitation of such an entity to exactly a three‐dimensional space does not allow for one of the three metric motions (reflection in a mirror). We can understand that the intrinsic difference between true vectors and pseudo‐vectors.



Parabolic Properties from Pieces of String

I am pleased to announce that my latest paper, “Parabolic Properties from Pieces of String,” has now been published in Math Horizons. This was a really fun project for me. As I describe in the paper, I started wondering if it was possible to convince a student who hadn’t learned calculus yet that string art from two line segments traces a parabola. Not only was I able to come up with a way of demonstrating this without calculus, but I was also able to (1) 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, and (2) prove the reflective property of parabolas. I was really pleased with the final result, and am very happy that this was accepted for publication.

Due to copyright restrictions, I’m not permitted to freely distribute the final, published version of my article. However, I am able to share the following version of the article.

The above PDF file is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in College Mathematics Journal on February 24, 2022, available online: Full article: Parabolic Properties from Pieces of String (tandfonline.com)

A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus

Last week, I posted that my latest paper, “A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus,” has now been published in College Mathematics Journal. In that previous post, I didn’t provide the complete exposition because of my understanding of copyright restrictions at that time.

I’ve since received requests for copies of my paper, which prompted me to carefully read the publisher’s copyright restrictions. In a nutshell, I was wrong: I am allowed to widely distribute preprints that did not go through peer review and, with extra restrictions, the accepted manuscript after peer review.

So, anyway, here it is.

The above PDF file is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in College Mathematics Journal on January 28, 2022, available online: Full article: A New Derivation of Snell’s Law Without Calculus (tandfonline.com).

A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus

I’m pleased to say that my latest paper, “A New Derivation of Snell’s Law without Calculus,” has now been published in College Mathematics Journal. The article is now available for online access to anyone who has access to the journal — usually, that means members of the Mathematical Association of America or anyone whose employer (say, a university) has institutional access. I expect that it will be in the printed edition of the journal later this year; however, I’ve not been told yet the issue in which it will appear.

Because of copyright issues, I can’t reproduce my new derivation of Snell’s Law here on the blog, so let me instead summarize the main idea. Snell’s Law (see Wikipedia) dictates the angle at which light is refracted when it passes from one medium (say, air) into another (say, water). If the velocity of light through air is v_1 while its velocity in water is v_2, then Snell’s Law says that

\displaystyle \frac{\sin \theta_1}{v_1} = \displaystyle \frac{\sin \theta_2}{v_2}

From Wikipedia

I was asked by a bright student who was learning physics if there was a way to prove Snell’s Law without using calculus. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of Huygens’s Principle (see OpenStax) and I didn’t have a good answer. I had only seen derivations of Snell’s Law using the first-derivative test, which is a standard optimization problem found in most calculus books (again, see Wikipedia) based on Fermat’s Principle that light travels along a path that minimizes time.

Anyway, after a couple of days, I found an elementary proof that does not require proof. I should warn that the word “elementary” can be a loaded word when used by mathematicians. The proof uses only concepts found in Precalculus, especially rotating a certain hyperbola and careful examining the domain of two functions. So while the proof does not use calculus, I can’t say that the proof is particularly easy — especially compared to the classical proof using Huygens’s Principle.

That said, I’m pretty sure that my proof is original, and I’m pretty proud of it.

Goodbye Aberration: Physicist Solves 2,000-Year-Old Optical Problem

This was a nice write-up (with some entertaining interspersed snark) of the solution of the the Wasserman-Wolf problem concerning the construction of a perfect lens (like a camera lens). Some quotes:

[L]enses are made from spherical surfaces. The problem arises when light rays outside the center of the lens or hitting at an angle can’t be focused at the desired distance in a point because of differences in refraction.

Which makes the center of the image sharper than the corners…

In a 1949 article published in the Royal Society Proceedings, Wasserman and Wolf formulated the problem—how to design a lens without spherical aberration—in an analytical way, and it has since been known as the Wasserman-Wolf problem…

The problem was solved in 2018 by doctoral students in Mexico. For those fluent in Spanish, the university press release can be found here. As an added bonus, here’s the answer: