Trying to find math inside everything else

Posts tagged ‘Calculus’

Integration First

Last year I went to a PD at Math for America that was about approaching calculus from a geometric point of view. The presenter mentioned during it that, historically, the idea of the integral was developed first, followed by the derivative, and then the limit. Yet in many calculus courses, they are taught in the exact reverse order. I decided that, should I teach calc again in the fall, I’d do integration first.

Well, school is rapidly approaching, and so I’ve been thinking about it again. I did so searching and found this intense forum discussion (oh, old Internet), which pointed me in the direction of the Apostol’s Calculus 1 textbook, which starts off with integrals. The post also had a bunch of arguments about why I shouldn’t do it. One of the notable arguments was that in order to fully teach integration (including u-substitution and integration by parts), you need differentiation. But I actually view that as a benefit, not a downside, because it forces a more spiraled approach. I can start with integrals, then go to differentiation, and then tie them together.

In general, I feel like area is a much more approachable subject than slope. My years of teaching Algebra I to 9th graders certainly seems to support that claim. But I also think it’s easier to understand the linearity of integration than the linearity of slope. “If you add together two functions, the area under the new function is the sum of the areas under the old functions” seems much more evidently true than “If you add together two functions, the slope of the tangent line for each point of the new function is equal to the sum of the slopes of the tangent lines at the same points on the old functions.”

Of course, Jonathan has already worked to restructure his calculus course, and I plan on taking a number of cues from his more spiraled sequence – but still with integrals first.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

Q1 (Intro to Integrals) – (Sam’s Abstract Functions, Area Under Stepwise Functions/Definite Integrals, Properties of Integrals, Riemann Sums, Area Under a Curve, Power Rule for Integrals, Trig Integrals, some applications)

Q2 (Intro to Derivatives) – (Average vs Instantaneous RoC, Tangent/Secant Lines, Power Rule, Trig Derivatives, some applications)

Q3 (Fundamental Theorem) – FTC, Chain Rule/u-substitution, Product Rule/Quotient Rule/Integration by Parts, Curve Sketching/Shape of a Graph)

Q4 (More Applications) – Related Rates, Optimization, Volume, etc

How does that sound?


This is the first year I’ve taught seniors. Well, more specifically, seniors who did not need my class to graduate, as I’ve had seniors in algebra and CS before. Whereas my challenge with 9th graders was their maturity level and showing them the norms of behavior in our high school, with the seniors it’s fighting against the (frankly, correct) decision they have made that the work we are doing is kinda unnecessary. This is compounded by the fact that calculus is kinda hard, which makes it easy to disengage. (The APCS class at least had the AP exam as motivation, but now with that past, I have to create a whole month’s worth of motivation.) This probably isn’t helped by the fact that calculus has no set end point that we “need” to get to – we get as far as we get, though I have certain personal goals. So the pace and the effort levels have been low key all year. Now they just want me to pass them all because they are graduating, even though we having even finished the second of three marking periods. So that’s my current struggle.

Parallel to a Parabola?

A while back, I was working on a lesson about average rate of change and wondered the following question: “Could you use the word ‘parallel ‘to describe two non-linear functions that have the same rate of change/don’t intersect?”

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 8.53.48 AM

Jonathan’s response, though, made me think about what it actually means to be parallel. Often when you ask students, they will respond “two lines that never intersect,” which I usually push back against because 1) how do you know they never ever intersect? and b) skew lines never intersect, either. So when I explain parallel lines, I use the fact that they have the same slope/go in the same direction as the actual definition, which has the consequence of never intersecting. So I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Given straight lines l and m, the following descriptions of line m equivalently define it as parallel to line l in Euclidean space:

  1. Every point on line m is located at exactly the same minimum distance from line l (equidistant lines).
  2. Line m is on the same plane as line l but does not intersect l (even assuming that lines extend to infinity in either direction).
  3. Lines m and l are both intersected by a third straight line (a transversal) in the same plane, and the corresponding angles of intersection with the transversal are congruent. (This is equivalent to Euclid‘s parallel postulate.)

I don’t think statement 3 was particularly useful to me, but the idea of being equidistant was interesting. A vertically shifted parabola is not equidistant from the original – though they never touch, the distance between them gets smaller and smaller.

So that raised the next question – how do I actually measure the distance between two parabolas at a given point? I asked my boyfriend and he responded, “Well, you definitely need calculus….” And who better to swoop in and help with that than Sam Shah.

Screen shot 2014-06-18 at 8.54.01 AM

So now that I know how to find the minimum distance between two functions, all I need to do is find a function that whose minimum distance to my original function is constant, and then I should have something that you could call parallel.

I made a little Desmos graphs with sliders, to help me visualize the process (click to access):

Screen shot 2014-06-21 at 1.27.13 PM

So I have the equation of the perpendicular line

y = \frac{-1}{f'(a)}(x-a)+f(a)

But that wasn’t really helping me see what the parallel function would actually look like. So then I turned to Geogebra. I needed to make a point on the perpendicular line that was a certain distance away from the function, say a distance of 1. So to figure out the coordinates of that point (x,y), I just used the distance formula, plugging in y from above.:

\sqrt{(x-a)^2+([\frac{-1}{f'(a)}(x-a)+f(a)] - f(a))^2} = 1

That gave me the coordinates of the point that is a distance of 1 away from f(x) at a:

(a + \frac{f'(a)}{\sqrt{1+(f'(a))^2}},\frac{-1}{\sqrt{1+(f'(a))^2}}+f(a))

So I made that point in Geogebra and activated the trace, which gave me this:

Screen shot 2014-06-21 at 2.20.38 PM

Lastly, I thought, well, what exactly is this function that I’ve traced? It looks kinda quartic, but that can’t be, because any quartic like this would intersect the parabola, right? So I tried to write the function for it, using parametric equations. Using f(t) = t^2, I made the parametric equation (t + \frac{2t}{\sqrt{1+4t^2}},\frac{-1}{\sqrt{1+4t^2}}+t^2).

I tried to plug that into Wolfram-Alpha to get the closed form, but it was a mess, so I still don’t really know what the closed form would look like. But who says a parametric form isn’t a solution?

(Here is a Desmos page with a summary of what I’ve done, and some sliders to play with, similar to the Geogebratube page, but with colors.)

Is Algebra 2 Necessary?

So, of course, Andrew Hacker’s article “Is Algebra Necessary?” had caused quite the stir, and the obvious answer to that question was “Yes, algebra is necessary.” But the article makes you think if all of what we learn of algebra is necessary. And I think it isn’t, but that comes from thinking about what high school is for.

Do we expect that, when a student gets to college, they can skip the lower levels of Biology because they took bio in high school? No, of course not. (Excepting AP courses, of course.) So what is our goal for learning biology in high school? It’s to provide a general foundation of the subject, that most people should know, and it prepares you for a college level course or major in Biology.

Really, all of what we learn in high school is designed to broaden our horizons, to provide experiences and content we wouldn’t see otherwise, and to provide a baseline of knowledge that we feel everyone should have.

I remember reading from someone, though I don’t recall who, that they had struggled through Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus, slogging along, and then when they got to Calculus a light turned on. “This was why we’ve been learning everything we’ve done in the past two years! It was all for this!” Even the wikipedia page on Pre-Calc says “…precalculus does not involve calculus, but explores topics that will be applied in calculus.” It’s putting the work before the motivating problem, again.

But now thinking about the normal course sequence for a student that is not advanced: Algebra –> Geometry –> Algebra 2 –> Pre-Calculus –> Graduated from High School, so no Calc! So these students will have two whole years of math without the payoff that shows why we do it.

And as teachers we know that you need to start with the motivating factor, not have it at the end. So why don’t we have calculus first, before those two? If we consider our goal in high school is to spread ideas people might not see otherwise, I think Calculus has a lot of important ideas people should see that would improve their lives. Optimization? The very idea of it can improve how you look at all the problems in your life. Related rates, limits, the idea of changing rates and local rates, the relationships between functions, these are all good ideas to be familiar with.

Can the students learn these things without having done Algebra 2/Pre-Calc? I think so. As Bowman Dickson says, “The hardest part of calculus is algebra.” So what if we taught it in a way that didn’t rely on that? We can get the ideas across without jumping into the nitty-gritty of a lot of it. Save that for AP level classes, or for college calc. What you take in college is more in depth that high school, so it should be the same here.

Now, there would certainly be some stuff from Algebra 2/Pre-Calc that we really need first. But why not have those in Algebra 1? I accidentally taught several things from Alg 2 when I taught Alg 1 my first year, because they seemed like natural extensions of what we were doing, and I didn’t know they weren’t required until I started planning for the next year. But also, consider this. If we made Probability & Statistics one of the main courses of the math sequence, I don’t have to teach it in Algebra 1. I spent about 7 weeks on those topics last year. That’s 7 weeks of Alg 2 content I could fold in, without worrying about reviewing old stuff because we just did it.

So then the new math sequence could be Statistics –> Geometry –> Algebra –> Calculus. (And I think that might fit well with the science sequence of Biology –> Earth Science –> Chemistry –> Physics.)