# Volume of a Pyramid

Three blank sheets of paper: 5 cents.

Printer ink: more expensive per ounce than fine perfume.

15 small pieces of Scotch tape: 2 cents.

Visually demonstrating that the volume of a pyramid is one-third the product of the height and the area of the base: Priceless.

# Engaging students: Finding the volume and surface area of prisms and cylinders

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 again comes from my former student Madison duPont. Her topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of prisms and cylinders.

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

A couple activities from my lesson plan attached below were activities I found to be helpful and interesting for my students when introducing surface area and deriving the formulas themselves from area and circumference formulas they already knew. The first activity I’d like to highlight, though it’s simple, was successful in introducing the concept of surface area to students. In our engage, students were shown pictures of cat posts, cylinders, prism-shaped presents and so on and asked how they could determine the amount of materials needed to cover the surface. They seemed familiar with the concept, but not necessarily the mathematical term or procedure for doing such. After getting their pre-conception-based suggestions and asking them the difference between that and the space the shape takes up (volume), my partner and I were able to see light bulbs go off in their minds and we were able to provide them the answer by introducing the concept of the lesson, surface area. The remaining lesson was an activity where they found the areas of the shapes connected in a cylinder’s net in order to find the total area. After the explore, we had them build the cylinder and then try to determine the area using other formulas. During class discussion, we had students present answers and solidify the reason behind the concept of the formula they found emphasizing the use of circumference being multiplied by length (like length x width of a rectangle but the circumference is the “width”) and that we needed to multiply the area of the circle by two because there were two bases on top and bottom. The student-lead activity of the lesson can be extended to deriving the formula of a surface area of a prism using a prism net, constructing the 3D shape, and then determining the areas of each with different strategies. Once surface area is completed with the two shapes volume exploration could be performed in a similar matter and after all is said and done, the differences between volume and surface area could be compared and contrasted using a chart or Venn-diagram. The activities used and extended from this lesson plan seemed beneficial and better than simply giving the student formulas to memorize and explain because the students physically create the surfaces and see the transition for 2D to 3D and respective use formulas they know to conceptually understand a method of finding the surface area or volume in addition to seeing the formulas. This will help students remember formulas and extend surface area and volume of prisms and cylinders to future topics.

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

Concepts of volume and surface area of cylinders and prisms will be used in several different courses and topics. The first example is in more advanced math topics such as Pre-calculus and Calculus when they are solving word problems such as determining optimized surface areas for companies to use production materials or the volume of water in a cylindrical tank as water is increasing or decreasing within. Another advanced math course that will utilize the concepts of surface area and volume are the higher calculus courses during which you are expected to find volume (integral of 3D figure) and surface area (using double integrals and partial derivatives) of shapes and also when using cylindrical shell, washer, and disk methods to solve integral problems. The formulas for these methods are largely based off of the concept of surface area and volume. In addition to mathematics, surface area will be discussed in sciences in a more conceptual way. In chemistry, surface area is relevant to chemical kinetics as the rate of a reaction is directly related to the surface area of a substance. In other words, as you increase the substance’s surface area, the rate of the reaction is also increased. Additionally, biology uses surface area concepts when considering the size of an organism and how its surface area affects its body temperature or digestion compared to an organism with a different surface area and volume. Lastly, biology relates to these concepts when learning about the surface area to volume ratio of a cell. This ratio bounds the viable size of a cell as the cell’s volume increases faster than the surface area (Surface Area, Wikipedia, 2016). With the knowledge of what is to be built off of these concepts, understanding surface area and volume of 3D shapes such as cylinders and prisms beyond memorized formulas becomes evidently imperative.

What interesting things can you say about the people who contributed to the discovery and/or the development of this topic? (You might want to consult Math Through The Ages.)

Archimedes, a Greek mathematician, considered his work with cylinders and spheres to be his “most beautiful achievements” as he was able to discover the volume and surface area of these shapes and even wanted his monument to involve a sphere and cylinder (MathPages). He did so by first exploring the area of a circle, which he did by bounding the upper and lower bounds of the circle according to circumference and radius and inscribed/circumscribed n-sided polygons. He then progressed to exploration of the sphere and derived surface area and then the surface area of a cylinder. After, he considered the volume of each shape using what he discovered from surface area with inscribed/circumscribed shapes. According to Mustafa Mawaldi, Archimedes published findings in a book called The Sphere and Cylinder. The more recent history of surface area occurred at the turn of the twentieth century when Henri Lebesgue and Herman Minkowski used the concepts of surface area to develop the geometric measure theory. This theory studies surface area of any dimensions that make up an irregular object (Surface Area, Wikipedia, 2016). Though this is not a comprehensive timeline of the development of surface area and volume, these facts demonstrate that surface area and volume was relevant even in Ancient Greek times and still allows for exploration today, making the topic more relevant and interesting.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_area

http://www.mathpages.com/home/kmath343/kmath343.htm

http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/volume-sphere-arabic-mathematics-historical-and-analytical-survey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface_area

# My Favorite One-Liners: Part 101

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.

I’ll use today’s one-liner when a choice has to be made between two different techniques of approximately equal difficulty. For example:

Calculate $\displaystyle \iint_R e^{-x-2y}$, where $R$ is the region $\{(x,y): 0 \le x \le y < \infty \}$

There are two reasonable options for calculating this double integral.

• Option #1: Integrate with respect to $x$ first:

$\int_0^\infty \int_0^y e^{-x-2y} dx dy$

• Option #2: Integrate with respect to $y$ first:

$\int_0^\infty \int_x^\infty e^{-x-2y} dy dx$

Both techniques require about the same amount of effort before getting the final answer. So which technique should we choose? Well, as the instructor, I realize that it really doesn’t matter, so I’ll throw it open for a student vote by asking my class:

After the class decides which technique to use, then we’ll set off on the adventure of computing the double integral.

This quip also works well when finding the volume of a solid of revolution. We teach our students two different techniques for finding such volumes: disks/washers and cylindrical shells. If it’s a toss-up as to which technique is best, I’ll let the class vote as to which technique to use before computing the volume.

# Engaging students: Finding the volume and surface area of a pyramid or cone

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 Natalie Moore. Her topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of a pyramid or cone.

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

A great thing that first came to my mind was using manipulatives, especially for finding surface area. I would prefer to use legos as a manipulative, but that will not work very well when trying to find surface area of a pyramid or a cone. Using the traditional math manipulatives will work fine for these types of shapes. I always loved using manipulatives as a student. However, we did not use them at all, from what I can remember, in high school and most of middle school. It would be great to bring more manipulative use into the high school classrooms. It makes learning more fun for the students, and it also helps the student with retaining the information better. In regards to finding the volume of a pyramid or cone with manipulatives, it will be a little more of a challenge. Instead of maybe using manipulatives though, I was thinking about a different fun activity. The activity I have in mind will not necessarily tell us the exact volume of these shapes, but it will give the students an idea of what volume is. That way, once students have an understanding of volume, once they have a formula, it will be easier for them to use it and it apply it to a problem. The activity I have in mind is taking large versions of these shapes and filling them up with a different object and counting how many of that object can fit into different sizes of the shapes. For example, I would use a camping tent to represent a pyramid. I would have two or three different sizes of tents. I would then see how many students can fit in each sized tent. That way, they can see X amount of students can fit in one tent while Y amount of students fit in a different sized tent. For cones, I would do the same type of thing but the object I would use would be an ice cream cone and see how many scoops can fit into various sizes.

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

Surface area, mainly just area, and volume show up all the time in other math classes, especially calculus based courses. In these types of higher level thinking courses, students will not necessarily have to find the area or volume of shapes, but if a student has to answer a word problem involving area and/or volume and they do not of a good grasp on these concepts, it will be harder for them to solve the word problem. There are times too where the student will have to solve the area or volume of a specific shape, and it will not always be something as simple as a square or rectangle. We need to make sure as teachers that we are doing all we can to instill these concepts into the students since they will need to know them for classes later on.

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

Before students will learn about the volume and surface area of pyramids and cones, they will typically learn about finding the area of rectangles and squares since those are the easiest to work with. Students are taught pretty early on how to find area of squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles. As they get older, they will learn about other shapes as well, especially 3-d shapes. After students have the basics of area down, then they will begin to learn about surface area and volume of these 3-d shapes. This is taking what they already know and taking it a step further to deepen their understanding.

# Area of a Triangle and Volume of Common Shapes: Index

I’m using the Twelve Days of Christmas (and perhaps a few extra days besides) to do 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 different ways of finding the area of a triangle as well as finding the volumes of common shapes.

Part 1: Deriving the formula $A = \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} bh$.

Part 2: Cavalieri’s principle and finding areas using calculus.

Part 3: Cavalieri’s principle and finding the volume of a pyramid and then the volume of a sphere.

Part 4: Finding the area of a triangle using the Law of Sines.

Part 5: Finding the area of a triangle using the Law of Cosines.

Part 6: Finding the area of a triangle using the triangle’s incenter.

Part 7: Finding the area of a triangle using a determinant and the coordinates of the vertices.

Part 8: Finding the area of a triangle using Pick’s theorem.

# Engaging students: Finding the volume and surface area of pyramids and cones

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 again comes from my former student Laura Lozano. Her topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of pyramids and cones.

C1. How has this topic appeared in pop culture (movies, TV, current music, video games, etc.)?

Now days, pyramids have appeared almost all over pop culture because of the illuminati conspiracy. Famous artist like Katy Perry, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and many others are believed to be part of this group that practices certain things to retain their wealth. Since it’s a conspiracy, it might not be true. Although that’s another topic, they all use an equilateral triangle and pyramids to represent they are part of the illuminati group. They display it in their music videos and while they are performing at a concert or awards show.

In Katy Perry’s new music video, were she portrays herself as a Egyptian queen, for some weird reason, she has a pyramid made out of what looks like twinkies.

To make this, the base and height had to be measured to create the surface area of the pyramid.

Also, the picture below is from Kanye West’s concerts. He is at the top of the pyramid.

To make this, they had to consider the size of the stage to fit the pyramid. So the size of the base depended on the size of the stage.

The most famous cone is the ice cream cone. When most people think of cone they initially think ice cream! Ice cream cones are made using the surface area of a cone and taking into consideration the volume of the cone. The bigger the surface area, the bigger the volume, the more ice cream!

C2. How has this topic appeared in high culture (art, classical music, theatre, etc.)

Some musical instruments have the form of a cone. For example, the tuba, trumpet, and the French horn all have a cone like shape.

The sound that comes out of the instrument depends on the volume of the cone shaped part as well as the other parts of the instrument. The bigger volume of the cone shaped part is, the deeper the sound, the smaller the volume of the cone shaped part is, the higher pitched it is.

Pyramids can be used in art work. Most of the art work done with pyramids is paintings of the Egyptian Pyramids. But, they can also be used to make sculptures of abstract art. Here is one example of an abstract sculpture made from recycled materials.

If the sculpture is hallow, then to make it you would only need the surface area. If it’s not, then you would also need to calculate the volume to see how much recycled material was used.

D5. How have different cultures throughout time used this topic in their society?

In ancient history, the Egyptians used to build pyramids to build a tomb for pharaohs and their queens to protect their bodies after their death. The pyramids were built to last forever. No one knows exactly how they built the pyramids but people have had theorys on how they were built.

The most famous pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids are Pyramid Khafre, Pyramid Menkaure, and Pyramid Khufu. It is the biggest and greatest pyramid of Egypt. This pyramid used to measure about 481 feet in height and the base length is about 756 feet long. However, because the pyramid is very very old, erosion causes changes in the measurements of the pyramid. When scientiest and archeologist had to find the differrent measurements they most likely used the formula to find the volume and surface area of the pyramid. However, back then, the formula was probably not discovered yet.

An example for cones is the conical hat. Used by most the Asian culture, conical hats, also know as rice hats, or farmers hat, were worn by farmers, and they are still somewhat used today. There are many types of conical hats that can be made today. Some are widder than others, and some are taller than others. To make the hats, the maker of the hat has to consider the surface area of the hat to make the hat properly.

.

Resources:

http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/the-egyptian-pyramids

http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/news/latest-news/kanye-wests-yeezus-stage-show-includes-mountains-pyramids-and-jesus-impersonator-139788

http://earthmatrix.com/great/pyramid.htm

# Engaging students: Finding the volume and surface area of spheres

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 again comes from my former student Allison Myers. Her topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of spheres..

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

Show students pictures of the Personal Satellite Assistant (PSA). Tell students they are going to investigate how the surface area and volume of a sphere change as its radius changes.

Explain that they will also determine how big the PSA is in real life.

Remind students that NASA engineers have created a 30.5-centimeter

(12-inch) diameter model of the PSA, but they want to shrink it to 20 centimeters (8 inches) in diameter.

Use a 30.5-centimeter (12-inch) diameter globe and let students know the globe is roughly the size of the current PSA model.

Ask students how the PSA might look different if its surface area were reduced by half.

Ask how the function of the PSA might be different if its volume were reduced by half.

Ask students what information they need to calculate its surface area and volume.

If they appear confused, draw three circles of different sizes and ask students how to calculate the area of each of the circles.

The only information they need is the radius of the sphere. Review the properties of a sphere.

Ask students what formulas are necessary to calculate the surface area and volume of the sphere. Write these formulas on the board:

Show students a baseball, softball, volleyball, and basketball. Ask them if they think the surface area and volume of a sphere change at equal rates as the spheres increase from the size of a baseball to the size of a basketball.

Ask students how they will verify their hypotheses.

Curriculum

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

In calculus students will learn that you can revolve a curve about the x or y-axis to generate a solid. For example, a semicircle [f(x) = √(r2-x2)] can be revolved about the x-axis to obtain a sphere with radius r. From this, the different formulas for calculating the volume of a sphere can be derived.

In calculus, students will also learn how to find the surface area of a sphere by integrating about either the x or y axis.

At some point, students may also extend their knowledge of spheres into higher dimensions (hyperspheres), where they will learn how volume changes according the dimensions they are working in.

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

For Volume of a Sphere:

Recent Hubble Space Telescope studies of Pluto have confirmed that its atmosphere is undergoing considerable change, despite its frigid temperatures. The images, created at the very limits of Hubble’s resolving power, show enigmatic light and dark regions that are probably organic compounds (dark areas) and methane or water-ice deposits (light areas). Since these photos are all that we are likely to get until NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives in 2015, let’s see what we can learn from the image!

Problem 1

– Using a millimeter ruler, what is the scale of the Hubble image in kilometers/millimeter?
Problem 2

– What is the largest feature you can see on any of the three images, in kilometers, and how large is this compared to a familiar earth feature or landmark such as a state in the United States?
Problem 3

– The satellite of Pluto, called Charon, has been used to determine the total mass of Pluto. The mass determined was about 1.3 x 1022 kilograms. From clues in the image, calculate the volume of Pluto and determine the average density of Pluto. How does it compare to solid-rock (3000 kg/m3), water-ice (917 kg/m3)?
Inquiry:

Can you create a model of Pluto that matches its average density and predicts what percentage of rock and ice may be present?
Resource: http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/weekly/6Page143.pdf

# Volume of solid of revolution

In Calculus I, we teach two different techniques for finding the volume of a solid of revolution:

• Disks (or washers), in which the cross-section is perpendicular to the axis of revolution, and
• Cylindrical shells, in which the cross-section is parallel to the axis of revolution.

Both of these could be expressed as either an integral with respect to x or as an integral with respect to y, depending on the axis of revolution. I won’t go into a full treatment of the procedure here; this can be found in places like http://www.cliffsnotes.com/math/calculus/calculus/applications-of-the-definite-integral/volumes-of-solids-of-revolution or http://mathworld.wolfram.com/SolidofRevolution.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disk_integration or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shell_integration.

A natural question asked by students is, “If I have the choice, should I use disks or shells?” The correct answer, of course, is “Pick the method that gives you the easier integral to compute.” But that’s not a very satisfying answer for novice students who’ve just been exposed to integral calculus. So, over the years, I developed a standard reply to this query:

That’s an excellent question, and it’s one of the classic conundrums faced by mankind over the years.

Should I choose Coke… or Pepsi?

McDonald’s… or Burger King?

Ginger… or Mary Ann?

Disks… or shells?

The answer is, it just takes a little practice and experience to determine which technique gives you the easier integral.

If you don’t get the cultural reference, here’s a reminder. As of 10 years ago, I could still tell this joke to college students and still get smiles of acknowledgement. But, given the passage of time, I’m not sure if this same joke would fly college students now.

# Engaging students: Volume and surface area of pyramids and cones

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 Angel Pacheco. His topic, from Geometry: finding the volume and surface area of pyramids and cones.

How has this topic appeared in high culture (art, classical music, theatre, etc.)?

Show an example of the pyramid of Giza, give them dimensions of the pyramid as well as the dimensions of the blocks that were used to build it and have the students guess how many blocks it took to build it. The students can use this as a competitive edge to want to get the correct answer. Students will have to solve for the surface area of the pyramid and the area of the face of the block. There can also be an example where I will tell the students if the pyramid was fill of blocks and they’re given the dimensions of the pyramid and block. They then find the volume of both to determine how many blocks can fill in the pyramid.

I will then show an image of a Greek amphitheater and explain how it resembles a cone. I will give them dimensions of a Greek amphitheater and have them find the surface area and the volume of cone if the amphitheater was folded into a cylinder.

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

Students will be reintroduce to the volume of a cone in multivariable calculus when they learn about triple integrals and the different forms of integrals, like Cartesian, Polar, and Spherical coordinates. Surface Area and Volume of both the shapes will be seen in architectural engineering whenever they come across an assignment or job that requires them to find how big the cone or pyramid is in their draft of a monument or building.

This topic can also assist the students in their Geometry class in high school as well as college level. In mathematics, it’s better if there is a stronger foundation build in the early ages. When students face volume and surface area of pyramids and cones, they will gain more knowledge of the concept as time progresses. It’s always good to start early. Talking to students about different shapes and their areas and volumes gives them perspective in geometry.

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

In Ancient Greece, there were famous scientists that contained vast amount of knowledge. For example, Thales of Miletus and Democritus were some of the scientists that used surface area and volumes of cones and pyramids. Democritus was one of the first to observe that cones and square pyramids were one third of the volume of a cylinder and prism, respectively if they have similar measurements. I would use this as an engagement because Greek mythology is pretty popular. This could be used to show students that the math they are doing today is similar to the math that was done in the past, ancient past.

In Ancient Egypt, square pyramids were used to create the famous pyramids of Egypt such as the Pyramid of Giza. Pyramids were used to idolize their kings. The Mayan Indians also used pyramids to idolize their leaders. Bringing up different examples of different cultures that talk about the shapes they see in class then it can grab their attention. The link below is a lesson that talks about surface area and volume of cones and pyramids. It seems as an effective tool to assess students if they understand the concepts of SA and Volume.

# Area of a triangle: Vertices (Part 7)

Suppose that the vertices of a triangle are $(1,2)$, $(2,5)$, and $(3,1)$. What is the area of the triangle?

At first blush, this doesn’t fall under any of the categories of SSS, SAS, or ASA. And we certainly aren’t given a base $b$ and a matching height $h$. The Pythagorean theorem could be used to determine the lengths of the three sides so that Heron’s formula could be used, but that would be extremely painful to do.

Fortunately, there’s another way to find the area of a triangle that directly uses the coordinates of the triangle. It turns out that the area of the triangle is equal to the absolute value of

$\displaystyle \frac{1}{2} \left| \begin{array}{ccc} 1 & 2 & 1 \\ 2 & 5 & 1 \\ 3 & 1 & 1 \end{array} \right|$

Notice that the first two columns contain the coordinates of the three vertices, while the third column is just padded with $1$s. Calculating, we find that the area is

$\left| \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} \left( 5 + 6 + 2 - 15 - 4 - 1 \right) \right| = \left| \displaystyle -\frac{7}{2} \right| = \displaystyle \frac{7}{2}$

In other words, direct use of the vertices is, in this case, a lot easier than the standard SSS, SAS, or ASA formulas.

A (perhaps) surprising consequence of this formula is that the area of any triangle with integer coordinates must either be an integer or else a half-integer. We’ll see this again when we consider Pick’s theorem in tomorrow’s post.

There is another way to solve this problem by considering the three vertices as points in $\mathbb{R}^3$. The vector from $(1,2,0)$ to $(2,5,0)$ is $\langle 1,3,0 \rangle$, while the vector from $(1,2,0)$ to $(3,1,0)$ is $\langle 2,-1,0 \rangle$. Therefore, the area of the triangle is one-half the length of the cross-product of these two vectors. Recall that the cross-product of the two vectors is

$\langle 1,3,0 \rangle \times \langle 2,-1,0 \rangle = \left| \begin{array}{ccc} {\bf i} & {\bf j} & {\bf k} \\ 1 & 3 & 0 \\ 2 & -1 & 0 \end{array} \right|$

$\langle 1,3,0 \rangle \times \langle 2,-1,0 \rangle = -7{\bf k}$

So the length of the cross-product is clearly $7$, so that the area of the triangle is (again) $\displaystyle \frac{7}{2}$.

The above technique works for any triangle in $\mathbb{R}^3$. For example, if we consider a triangle in three-dimensional space with corners at $(1,2,3)$, $(4,3,0)$, and $(6,1,9)$, the area of the triangle may be found by “subtracting” the coordinates to find two vectors along the sides of the triangle and then finding the cross-product of those two vectors.

Furthermore, determinants may be used to find the volume of a tetrahedron in $\mathbb{R}^3$. Suppose that we now consider the tetrahedron with corners at $(1,2,3)$, $(4,3,0)$, $(6,1,9)$, and $(2,5,2)$. Let’s consider $(1,2,3)$ as the “starting” point and subtract these coordinates from those of the other three points. We then get the three vectors

$\langle 3,2,-3 \rangle$, $\langle 5,-1,6 \rangle$, and $\langle 1,3,-1 \rangle$

One-third of the absolute value of the determinant of these three vectors will be the volume of the tetrahedron.

This post has revolved around one central idea: a determinant represents an area or a volume. While this particular post has primarily concerned triangles and tetrahedra, I should also mention that determinants are similarly used (without the factors of $1/2$ and $1/3$) for finding the areas of parallelograms and the volumes of parallelepipeds.

This central idea is also the basis behind an important technique taught in multivariable calculus: integration in polar coordinates and in spherical coordinates.
In two dimensions, the formulas for conversion from polar to rectangular coordinates are

$x = r \cos \theta$ and $y = r \sin \theta$

Therefore, using the Jacobian, the “infinitesimal area element” used for integrating is

$dx dy = \left| \begin{array}{cc} \partial x/\partial r & \partial y/\partial r \\ \partial x/\partial \theta & \partial y/\partial \theta \end{array} \right| dr d\theta$

$dx dy = \left| \begin{array}{cc} \cos \theta & \sin \theta \\ -r \sin \theta & r \cos \theta \end{array} \right| dr d\theta$

$dx dy = (r \cos^2 \theta + r \sin^2 \theta) dr d\theta$

$dx dy = r dr d\theta$

Similarly, using a $3 \times 3$ determinant, the conversion $dx dy dz = r^2 \sin \phi dr d\theta d\phi$ for spherical coordinates can be obtained.
References:

http://www.purplemath.com/modules/detprobs.htm

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Parallelogram.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallelogram#Area_formulas

http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Parallelepiped.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallelopiped#Volume