Engaging students: Vectors in two dimensions

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 Sarah McCall. Her topic, from Precalculus: vectors in two dimensions.

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What interesting (i.e., uncontrived) word problems using this topic can your students do now?

For such an applicable topic, I believe that it is beneficial to have students see how this might apply to their lives and to real world problems. I selected the following word problems because they are challenging, but I think it is necessary for students to be a little frustrated initially so that they are able to learn well and remember what they’ve learned.

1. A DC-10 jumbo jet maintains an airspeed of 550 mph in a southwesterly direction. The velocity of the jet stream is a constant 80 mph from the west. Find the actual speed and direction of the aircraft.

2. The pilot of an aircraft wishes to head directly east, but is faced with a wind speed of 40 mph from the northwest. If the pilot maintains an airspeed of 250 mph, what compass heading should be maintained? What is the actual speed of the aircraft?

3. A river has a constant current of 3 kph. At what angle to a boat dock should a motorboat, capable of maintaining a constant speed of 20 kph, be headed in order to reach a point directly opposite the dock? If the river is ½ a kilometer wide, how long will it take to cross?

Because these problems are difficult, students would be instructed to work together to complete them. This would alleviate some frustrations and “stuck” feelings by allowing them to ask for help. Ultimately, talking through what they are doing and successfully completing challenging problems will take students to a deeper level of involvement with their own learning.

 

 

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

I believe vectors are fairly easy to teach because there are so many real life applications of vectors. However, it can be difficult to get students initially engaged. For this activity, I would have students work in groups to complete a project inspired by Khan Academy’s videos on vector word problems. Students would split off into groups and watch each of the three videos on Khan Academy that have to do with applications of vectors in two dimensions. Using these videos as an example, students will be instructed to come up with a short presentation or video that teaches other students about vectors in two dimensions using real world applications and examples.

 

 

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

Immediately when I see vectors, I think of one specific movie quote from my late childhood that I’ll always remember. The villain named Vector from Despicable Me who “commits crimes with both direction AND magnitude” is a fellow math nerd and is therefore one of my favorite Disney villains of all time. So of course, I had to find the clip (linked below) because I think it is absolutely perfect for engaging students in a lesson about vectors as soon as they walk in the door, and it is memorable and educational. I would refer back to this video several times throughout the lesson and in future lessons because it is a catchy way to remember the two components to vectors. This would also be great to kick off a unit on scalars and vectors, because it would get kids laughing and therefore engaged, plus they will always remember the difference between a scalar and a vector (direction AND magnitude!).  

References:

  1. https://www.khanacademy.org/math/precalculus/vectors-precalc/applications-of-vectors/v/vector-component-in-direction
  2. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwj42PaGqojXAhXKSiYKHTvLD8oQFgguMAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jessamine.k12.ky.us%2Fuserfiles%2F1038%2FClasses%2F17195%2FVector%2520Word%2520Problems%2520Practice%2520Worksheet%25202.docx&usg=AOvVaw1IHTinEQtGK4Ww1_JkBhHf
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOIe0DIMbI8

My Favorite One-Liners: Part 9

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Today, I’d like to discuss a common mistake students make in trigonometry… as well as the one-liner that I use to (hopefully) help students not make this mistake in the future.

Question. Find all solutions (rounded to the nearest tenth of a degree) of \sin x = 0.8.

Erroneous Solution. Plugging into a calculator, we find that x \approx 53.1^o.

arcsine1

The student correctly found the unique angle x between -90^o and 90^o so that \sin x = 0.8. That’s the definition of the arcsine function. However, there are plenty of other angles whose sine is equal to 0.7. This can happen in two ways.

First, if $\sin x > 0$, then the angle x could be in either the first quadrant or the second quadrant (thanks to the mnemonic All Scholars Take Calculus). So x could be (accurate to one decimal place) equal to either 53.1^o or else 180^o - 53.1^o = 126.9^o. Students can visualize this by drawing a picture, talking through each step of its construction (first black, then red, then brown, then green, then blue).arcsin45

However, most students don’t really believe that there’s a second angle that works until they see the results of a calculator.

TIarcsin45

Second, any angle that’s coterminal with either of these two angles also works. This can be drawn into the above picture and, as before, confirmed with a calculator.

So the complete answer (again, approximate to one decimal place) should be 53.1^{\circ} + 360n^o and 126.9 + 360n^{\circ}, where n is an integer. Since integers can be negative, there’s no need to write \pm in the solution.

Therefore, the student who simply answers 53.1^o has missed infinitely many solutions. The student has missed every nontrivial angle that’s coterminal with 53.1^o and also every angle in the second quadrant that also works.

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Here’s my one-liner — which never fails to get an embarrassed laugh — that hopefully helps students remember that merely using the arcsine function is not enough for solving problems such as this one.

You’ve forgotten infinitely many solutions. So how many points should I take off?

For further reading, here’s my series on inverse functions.

Merry Christmas!

Hosanna in Excel sheets.

hosanna-in-excel-sheetsAnd Merry Christmas.

 

Slide rule

To give my students a little appreciation for their elders, I’ll demonstrate for them how to use a slide rule. Though I have my own slide rule which I can pass around the classroom, demonstrating how to use a slide rule is a little cumbersome since they don’t have their own slide rules to use.

I recently found an applet to make this demonstration a whole lot easier: https://code.google.com/p/java-slide-rule/

Thoughts on Infinity (Part 3f)

In recent posts, we’ve seen the curious phenomenon that the commutative and associative laws do not apply to a conditionally convergent series or infinite product: while

\displaystyle 1 - \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{5} - ... = \ln 2,

a rearranged series can be something completely different:

\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{7} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{9} + \frac{1}{11} - \frac{1}{6} ... = \displaystyle \frac{3}{2} \ln 2.

This very counterintuitive result can be confirmed using commonly used technology — in particular, Microsoft Excel. In the spreadsheet below, I typed:

  • =IF(MOD(ROW(A1),3)=0,ROW(A1)*2/3,IF(MOD(ROW(A1),3)=1,4*(ROW(A1)-1)/3+1,4*(ROW(A1)-2)/3+3)) in cell A1
  • =POWER(-1,A1-1)/A1 in cell B1
  • =B1 in cell C1
  • I copied cell A1 into cell A2
  • =POWER(-1,A2-1)/A2 in cell B2
  • =C1+B2 in cell C2

The unusual command for cell A1 was necessary to get the correct rearrangement of the series.

Then I used the FILL DOWN command to fill in the remaining rows. Using these commands cell C9 shows the sum of all the entries in cells B1 through B9, so that

\displaystyle 1 + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{5} + \frac{1}{7} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{9} + \frac{1}{11} - \frac{1}{6} \approx 0.961544012

log2series6

Filling down to additional rows demonstrates that the sum converges to \displaystyle \frac{3}{2}\ln 2 and not to \ln 2. Here’s the sum up to 10,000 terms… the entry in column E is the first few digits in the decimal expansion of \displaystyle \frac{3}{2} \ln 2. log2series7

Clearly the partial sums are not approaching \ln 2 \approx 0.693, and there’s good visual evidence to think that the answer is \displaystyle \frac{3}{2} \ln 2 instead. (Incidentally, the 10,000th partial sum is very close to the limiting value because 10,000 is one more than a multiple of 3.)

 

 

 

Thoughts on Infinity (Part 3d)

In recent posts, we’ve seen the curious phenomenon that the commutative and associative laws do not apply to a conditionally convergent series or infinite product. Here’s another classic example of this fact that’s attributed to Cauchy.

In yesterday’s post, I showed that

\displaystyle 1 - \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{5} - ... = \ln 2.

This can be (sort of) confirmed using commonly used technology — in particular, Microsoft Excel. In the spreadsheet below, I typed:

  • 1 in cell A1
  • =POWER(-1,A1-1)/A1 in cell B1
  • =B1 in cell C1
  • =A1+1 in cell A2
  • =POWER(-1,A2-1)/A2 in cell B2
  • =C1+B2 in cell C2
  • Then I used the FILL DOWN command to fill in the remaining rows. Using these commands cell C10 shows the sum of all the entries in cells B1 through B10, so that

1 - \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{3} - \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{5} - \frac{1}{6} + \frac{1}{7} - \frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{9} - \frac{1}{10} \approx 0.645634921

log2series1

 

Filling down to additional rows demonstrates that the sum converges to \ln 2, albeit very slowly (as is typical for conditionally convergent series). Here’s the sum up to 200 terms… the entry in column E is the first few digits in the decimal expansion of \ln 2.

log2series2

Here’s the result after 2000 terms:

log2series3

20,000 terms:

log2series4

And finally, 200,000 terms. (It takes a few minutes for Microsoft Excel to scroll this far.)

log2series5We see that, as expected, the partial sums are converging to \ln 2, as expected. Unfortunately, the convergence is extremely slow — we have to compute 10 times as many terms in order to get one extra digit in the final answer.

 

 

Deciphering recommendation engines

From the video’s description: “Data scientist Cathy O’Neil provides a glimpse of the methods that Netflix, Google, and others apply to recommend or offer to users selections based on their apparent interests.” This is a non-intuitive but real application of linear algebra.

Preparation for Industrial Careers in the Mathematical Sciences: Finding the Safest Place to Store Nuclear Waste

The Mathematical Association of America recently published a number of promotional videos showing various mathematics can be used in “the real world.” Here’s the first pair of videos describing the process of mathematical modeling. From the YouTube descriptions:

Dr. Genetha Gray talks about her path and about a research problem that she worked on at Sandia National Laboratories. Using quite limited geological data, they had to create a groundwater flow computational model, with parameters to be determined, so that they could study the feasibility and safety of prospective subsurface nuclear waste storage sites.

Prof. Gwen Spencer of Smith College introduces the mathematics behind optimization, calibration, and the quantification of uncertainty in models and in the results that they give.

Arithmetic with big numbers: Index

I’m doing something that I should have done a long time ago: collect past series of posts into a single, easy-to-reference post. The following posts formed my series on doing basic arithmetic with very large numbers that exceed the character displays of most calculators.

Part 1: Addition

Part 2: Multiplication

Part 3: Division

 

 

 

 

A clean computer programming joke

A programmer calls home. His wife says, “While you’re out, get some milk.” He never returns home.