Next Steps from a Triangle

Watching the news a couple mornings ago, an impossible triangle appeared on the screen.  Hopefully some readers might be able to turn some first ideas a colleague and I had into a great applied geometry lesson.  What follows are some teacher thoughts.  My colleagues and I hope to cultivate classes where students become curious enough to raise some of these questions themselves.

CNN_triangle

WHAT’S WRONG?

At first glance, the labeling seems off.  In Euclidean geometry, the Triangle Inequality says the sum of the lengths of any two sides of a triangle must exceed the length of the third side.  Unfortunately, the shorter two sides sum to 34 miles, so the longest side of 40 miles seems physically impossible.  Someone must have made a typo.  Right?

But to dismiss this as a simple typo would be to miss out on some spectacular mathematical conversations.  I’m also a big fan of taking problems or situations with prima facie flaws and trying to recover either the problem or some aspects of it (see two of previous posts here and here).

WHAT DOES APPROXIMATELY MEAN?

Without confirming any actual map distances, I first was drawn to the vagueness of the approximated side lengths.  Was it possible that this triangle was actually correct under some level of round-off adjustment?  Hopefully, students would try to determine the degree of rounding the graphic creator used.  Two sides are rounded to a multiple of 10, but the left side appears rounded to a nearest integer with two significant digits.  Assuming the image creator was consistent (is that reasonable?), that last side suggests the sides were rounded to the nearest integer.  That means the largest the left side could be would be 14.5 miles and the bottom side 20.5 miles.  Unfortunately, that means the third side can be no longer than 14.5+20.5=35 miles.  Still not enough to justify the 40 miles, but this does open one possible save.

But what if all three sides were measured to the nearest 10 instead of my assumed ones place?  In this case the sides would be approximately 10, 20, and 40.  Again, this looks bad at first, but a 10 could have been rounded from a 14.9, a 20 from a 24.9, making the third side a possible 14.9+24.9=39.8, completely justifying a third side of 40.    This wasn’t the given labeling, but it would have potentially saved the graphic’s legitimacy.

GEOMETRY ALTERNATIVE

Is there another way the triangle might be correct?  Rarely do pre-collegiate geometry classes explore anything beyond Euclidean geometry.  One of my colleagues, Steve, proposed spherical geometry:

Does the fact that the earth is round play a part in these seemingly wrong values (it turns out “not really”… Although it’s not immediately clear, the only way to violate the triangle inequality in spherical geometry is to connect point the long way around the earth. And based on my admittedly poor geographical knowledge, I’m pretty sure that’s not the case here!)

SHORTEST DISTANCE

Perhaps students eventually realize that the distances involved are especially small relative to the Earth’s surface, so they might conclude that the Euclidean geometry approximation in the graphic is likely fine.

Then again, why is the image drawn “as the crow flies”?  The difficult mountainous terrain in upstate New York make surface distances much longer than air distances between the same points.  Steve asked,

in the context of this problem (known location of escaped prisoners), why is the shortest distance between these points being shown? Wouldn’t the walking/driving distance by paths be more relevant?  (Unless the prisoners had access to a gyrocopter…)

The value of a Euclidean triangle drawn over mountainous terrain has become questionable, at best.

FROM PERIMETER TO AREA

I suspect the triangle awkwardly tried to show the distances the escapees might have traveled.  Potentially interesting, but when searching for a missing person in the mountains–the police and news focus at the time of the graphic–you don’t walk the perimeter of the suspected zone, you have to explore the area inside.

A day later, I saw the search area around Malone, NY shown as a perfect circle.  (I wish I had grabbed that image, too.).  Around the same time, the news reported that the search area was 22 square miles.

  • Was the authorities’ 22 measure an approximation of a circle’s area, a polygon based on surface roads, or some other shape?
  • Going back to the idea of a spherical triangle, Steve hoped students would ask if they could “compute that from just knowing the side lengths? Is there a spherical Herons Formula?”
  • If the search area was a more complicated shape, could you determine its area through some sort of decomposition into simpler shapes?  Would spherical geometry change how you approach that question?  Steve wondered if any students would ask, “Could we compute that from just knowing the side lengths? Is there a spherical Herons Formula?
  • At one point near the end of the search, I hear there were about 1400 police officers in the immediate vicinity searching for the escapee.  If you were directing the search for a prison escapee or a lost hiker, how would you deploy those officers?  How long would it take them to explore the entire search zone?  How would the shape of the potential search zone affect your deployment plan?
  • If you spread out the searchers in an area, what is the probability that an escapee or missing person could avoid detection?  How would you compute such a probability?
  • Ultimately, I propose that Euclidean or spherical approximations seriously underestimated the actual surface area?  The dense mountainous terrain significantly complicated this search.  Could students extrapolate a given search area shape to different terrains?  How would the number of necessary searchers change with different terrains?
  • I think there are some lovely openings to fractal measures of surface roughness in the questions in the last bullet point.

ERROR ANALYSIS

Ultimately, we hope students would ask

  • What caused the graphic’s errors?  Based on analyses above and some Google mapping, we think “a liberal interpretation of the “approximately” label on each leg might actually be the culprit.”  What do the triangle inequality violations suggest about round-off errors or the use of significant digits?
  • The map appeared to be another iteration of a map used a few days earlier.  Is it possible that compounded rounding errors were partially to blame?
  • Surely the image’s designer new the triangle was an oversimplification of the reality.  Assuming so, why was this graphic used anyway?  Does it have any news value?  Could you design a more meaningful infographic?

APPRECIATION

Many thanks to Steve Earth for his multiple comments and thoughts that helped fill out this post.

CAS and Normal Probability Distributions

My presentation this past Saturday at the 2015 T^3 International Conference in Dallas, TX was on the underappreciated applicability of CAS to statistics.  This post shares some of what I shared there from my first year teaching AP Statistics.

MOVING PAST OUTDATED PEDAGOGY

It’s been decades since we’ve required students to use tables of values to compute by hand trigonometric and radical values.  It seems odd to me that we continue to do exactly that today for so many statistics classes, including the AP.  While the College Board permits statistics-capable calculators, it still provides probability tables with every exam.  That messaging is clear:  it is still “acceptable” to teach statistics using outdated probability tables.

In this, my first year teaching AP Statistics, I decided it was time for my students and I to completely break from this lingering past.  My statistics classes this year have been 100% software-enabled.  Not one of my students has been required to use or even see any tables of probability values.

My classes also have been fortunate to have complete CAS availability on their laptops.  My school’s math department deliberately adopted the TI-Nspire platform in part because that software looks and operates exactly the same on tablet, computer, and handheld platforms.  We primarily use the computer-based version for learning because of the speed and visualization of the large “real estate” there.  We are shifting to school-owned handhelds in our last month before the AP Exam to gain practice on the platform required on the AP.

The remainder of this post shares ways my students and I have learned to apply the TI-Nspire CAS to some statistical questions around normal distributions.

FINDING NORMAL AREAS AND PROBABILITIES

Assume a manufacturer makes golf balls whose distances traveled under identical testing conditions are approximately normally distributed with a mean 295 yards with a standard deviation of 3 yards.  What is the probability that one such randomly selected ball travels more than 300 yards?

Traditional statistics courses teach students to transform the 300 yards into a z-score to look up in a probability table.  That approach obviously works, but with appropriate technology, I believe there will be far less need to use or even compute z-scores in much the same way that always converting logarithms to base-10 or base-to use logarithmic tables is anachronistic when using many modern scientific calculators.

TI calculators and other technologies allow computations of non-standard normal curves.  Notice the Nspire CAS calculation below the curve uses both bounds of the area of interest along with the mean and standard deviation of the distribution to accomplish the computation in a single step.

norm1

norm2

So the probability of a randomly selected ball from the population described above going more than 300 yards is 4.779%.

GOING BACKWARDS

Now assume the manufacturing process can control the mean distance traveled.  What mean should it use so that no more than 1% of the golf balls travel more than 300 yards?

Depending on the available normal probability tables, the traditional approach to this problem is again to work with z-scores.  A modified CAS version of this is shown below.

norm4

Therefore, the manufacturer should produce a ball that travels a mean 293.021 yards under the given conditions.

The approach is legitimate, and I shared it with my students.  Several of them ultimately chose a more efficient single line command:

norm6

But remember that the invNorm() and normCdf() commands on the Nspire are themselves functions, and so their internal parameters are available to solve commands.  A pure CAS, “forward solution” still incorporating only the normCdf() command to which my students were first introduced makes use of this to determine the missing center.

norm5

DIFFERENTIATING INSTRUCTION

While calculus techniques definitely are NOT part of the AP Statistics curriculum, I do have several students jointly enrolled in various calculus classes.  Some of these astutely noted the similarity between the area-based arguments above and the area under a curve techniques they were learning in their calculus classes.  Never being one to pass on a teaching moment, I pulled a few of these to the side to show them that the previous solutions also could have been derived via integration.

norm7

I can’t recall any instances of my students actually employing integrals to solve statistics problems this year, but just having the connection verified completely solidified the mathematics they were learning in my class.

CONFIDENCE INTERVALS

The mean lead level of 35 crows in a random sample from a region was 4.90 ppm and the standard deviation was 1.12 ppm.  Construct a 95 percent confidence interval for the mean lead level of crows in the region.

Many students–mine included–have difficulty comprehending confidence intervals and resort to “black box” confidence interval tools available in most (all?) statistics-capable calculators, including the TI-Nspire.

As n is greater than 30, I can compute the requested z-interval by filling in just four entries in a pop-up window and pressing Enter.

norm8

Convenient, for sure, but this approach doesn’t help the confused students understand that the confidence interval is nothing more than the bounds of the middle 95% of the normal pdf described in the problem, a fact crystallized by the application of the tools the students have been using for weeks by that point in the course.

norm9

Notice in the solve+normCdf() combination commands that the unknown this time was a bound and not the mean as was the case in the previous example.

EXTENDING THE RULE OF FOUR

I’ve used the “Rule of Four” in every math class I’ve taught for over two decades, explaining that every mathematical concept can be explained or expressed four different ways:  Numerically, Algebraically, Graphically (including graphs and geometric figures), and Verbally.  While not the contextual point of his quote, I often cite MIT’s Marvin Minsky here:

“You don’t understand anything until you learn it more than one way.”

Learning to translate between the four representations grants deeper understanding of concepts and often gives access to solutions in one form that may be difficult or impossible in other forms.

After my decades-long work with CAS, I now believe there is actually a 5th representation of mathematical ideas:  Tools.  Knowing how to translate a question into a form that your tool (in the case of CAS, the tool is computers) can manage or compute creates a different representation of the problem and requires deeper insights to manage the translation.

I knew some of my students this year had deeply embraced this “5th Way” when one showed me his alternative approach to the confidence interval question:

norm10

I found this solution particularly lovely for several reasons.

  • The student knew about lists and statistical commands and on a whim tried combining them in a novel way to produce the desired solution.
  • He found the confidence interval directly using a normal distribution command rather than the arguably more convenient black box confidence interval tool.  He also showed explicitly his understanding of the distribution of sample means by adjusting the given standard deviation for the sample size.
  • Finally, while using a CAS sometimes involves getting answers in forms you didn’t expect, in this case, I think the CAS command and list output actually provide a cleaner, interval-looking result than the black box confidence interval command much more intuitively connected to the actual meaning of a confidence interval.
  • While I haven’t tried it out, it seems to me that this approach also should work on non-CAS statistical calculators that can handle lists.

(a very minor disappointment, quickly overcome)

Returning to my multiple approaches, I tried using my student’s newfound approach using a normCdf() command.

norm11

Alas, my Nspire returned the very command I had entered, indicating that it didn’t understand the question I had posed.  While a bit disappointed that this approach didn’t work, I was actually excited to have discovered a boundary in the current programming of the Nspire.  Perhaps someday this approach will also work, but my students and I have many other directions we can exploit to find what we need.

Leaving the probability tables behind in their appropriate historical dust while fully embracing the power of modern classroom technology to enhance my students’ statistical learning and understanding, I’m convinced I made the right decision to start this school year.  They know more, understand the foundations of statistics better, and as a group feel much more confident and flexible.  Whether their scores on next month’s AP exam will reflect their growth, I can’t say, but they’ve definitely learned more statistics this year than any previous statistics class I’ve ever taught.

COMPLETE FILES FROM MY 2015 T3 PRESENTATION

If you are interested, you can download here the PowerPoint file for my entire Nspired Statistics and CAS presentation from last week’s 2015 T3 International Conference in Dallas, TX.  While not the point of this post, the presentation started with a non-calculus derivation/explanation of linear regressions.  Using some great feedback from Jeff McCalla, here is an Nspire CAS document creating the linear regression computation updated from what I presented in Dallas.  I hope you found this post and these files helpful, or at least thought-provoking.

Lovely or Tricky Triangle Question?

In addition to not being drawn to scale and asking for congruence anyway, I like this problem because it potentially forces some great class discussions.

One responder suggested using the Law of Sines (LoS) to establish an isosceles triangle.  My first thought was that was way more sophisticated than necessary and completely missed the fact that the given triangle information was SSA.

My initial gut reaction was this SSA setup was a “trick” ambiguous case scenario and no congruence was possible, but I couldn’t find a flaw in the LoS logic. After all, LoS fails when attempting to find obtuse angles, but the geometry at play here clearly makes angles B and C both acute.  That meant LoS should work, and this was actually a determinate SSA case, not ambiguous.  I was stuck in a potential contradiction.  I was also thinking with trigonometry–a far more potent tool than I suspected was necessary for this problem.

“Stuck” moments like this are GOLDEN for me in the classroom.  I could imagine two primary student situations here.  They either  1) got a quick “proof” without recognizing the potential ambiguity, or 2) didn’t have a clue how to proceed.  There are many reasons why a student might get stuck here, all of which are worth naming and addressing in a public forum.  How can we NAME and MOVE PAST situations that confuse us?  Perhaps more importantly, how often do we actually recognize when we’re in the middle of something that is potentially slipperier than it appears to be on the surface?

PROBLEM RESOLUTION:

I read later that some invoked the angle bisector theorem, but I took a different path.  I’m fond of a property I asked my geometry classes to prove last year .

If any two of a triangle’s 1) angle bisector, 2) altitude, and 3) median coincide, prove that the remaining segment does, too, and that whenever this happens, the triangle will be isosceles with its vertex at the bisected angle.

Once I recognized that the angle bisector of angle BAC was also the median to side BC, I knew the triangle was isosceles.  The problem was solved without invoking any trigonometry or any similarity ratios.

Very nice problem with VERY RICH discussion potential.  Thanks for the tweet, Mr. Noble.

For more conversation on this, check out this Facebook conversation.

Saving a Quadrilateral Problem

Mike Lawler posted this on Twitter a couple weeks ago.

The sad part of the problem is that it has no realistic solution as posed.  From the way the diagram is drawn, the unlabeled side was likely intended to be congruent to its opposite side, making its value=x-4.  Adding the four sides and equating to the given perimeter was probably the intended solution.  This approach gives

(x-4)+24+(x-4)+(3x+2)=88
x=14

That’s nice enough, and a careless solver would walk away (see later in this post).  But you should always check your solution.  If x=14, then the longer base is 3(14)+2=44 and the two congruent sides are each 10.  That appears to be OK until you add the two congruent sides to the shorter base:  10+24+10=44.  Unfortunately, that’s the same length as the longer base, so this particular quadrilateral would have height=0.

Alas, this problem, as initially defined, creates a degenerate quadrilateral, but you would know this only if you checked down a couple layers–something I suspect most students (and obviously some problem writers) would miss.  Unless a class has explicitly addressed degenerate forms, I don’t think this is a fair question as written.

Even so, I wondered if the problem could be saved.  It wasn’t an isosceles quadrilateral in the formulation suggested by its unknown writer, but I wondered if there was a way to save it.  My following attempts all keep the given side labels, but assume the figure is not drawn to scale.

First a diversion:

Some don’t realize that the definition of a trapezoid is not a 100% settled issue in mathematics.  I posted on this almost three years ago (here) and got a few surprisingly fierce responses.

The traditional camp holds to Euclid’s definition that a trapezoid is a quadrilateral with exactly one pair of parallel sides.  I always found it interesting that this is the only quadrilateral Euclid restrictively defined in the Elements.

The other camp defines a trapezoid as a quadrilateral with at least one pair of parallel sides.  I’ve always liked this camp for two reasons.  First, this inclusive definition is more consistent with all of the other inclusive quadrilateral definitions.  Second, it allows greater connections between types.

Most students eventually learn that “a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square.”  This is a logical result of the inclusive definition of a rectangle.  Following that reasoning, two equivalent statements possible only from an inclusive definition of a trapezoid are “a parallelogram is a trapezoid, but a trapezoid is not necessarily a parallelogram,” and “a rectangle is an isosceles trapezoid, but an isosceles trapezoid is not necessarily a rectangle.”

Much more importantly, the inclusive definitions create what I call a “cascade of properties.”  That is, any properties held by any particular quadrilateral are automatically inherited by every quadrilateral in the direct line below it in the Quadrilateral Hierarchy.

Trying to Salvaging the Problem:

Recovery attempt 1.  My first attempt to save the problem–which I first thought would be a satisfactory moment of potentially controversial insight using the inclusive trapezoid definition–ended in some public embarrassment for me.  (I hope I recover that with this post!)

Under the inclusive definition, squares and rectangles are also isosceles quadrilaterals.  I wondered if the quadrilateral could be a rectangle.  If so, opposite sides would be equal, giving 24=3x+2, or x=\frac{22}{3}.  That creates a rectangle with sides \frac{10}{3} and 24.  I was pleased to have “saved” the problem and quickly tweeted out this solution.  Unfortunately, I forgot to double check the perimeter requirement of 88–a point someone had to point out on Twitter.  I know better than to make unchecked public pronouncements.  Alas.  The given problem can’t be saved by treating it as a rectangle.

Recovery attempt 2.  Could this be a square?  If so, all sides are equal and x-4=24 \longrightarrow x=20, but this doesn’t match the x-value found from the rectangle in the first recovery attempt.  This is important because squares are rectangles.

The given information doesn’t permit a square.  That means the given information doesn’t permit any form of non-degenerate isosceles trapezoid.  Disappointing.

Attempt 3–Finally Recovered.  What if this really was an isosceles trapezoid, but not as drawn?  Nothing explicit stated in the problem prevents me from considering the x-4 and the unlabeled sides parallel, and the other two congruent as shown.

isotrap1

So, 24=3x+2 \longrightarrow x=\frac{22}{3} as before with the rectangle, making \left( \frac{22}{3} \right) -4 = \frac{10}{3} the last labeled side.  The sum of these three sides is \frac{154}{3}, so the last side must be \frac{110}{3} for the overall perimeter to be 88.  The sum of the smallest of three of these is greater than the 4th, so the degenerate problem that scuttled Attempt #1 did not happen here.

So, there is a solution, x=\frac{22}{3}, that satisfies the problem as stated, but how many students would notice the first degenerate case, and then read the given figure as not to scale before finding this answer?  This was a poorly written problem.

In the end, the solution for x that I had posted to Twitter turned out to be correct … but not for the reasons I had initially claimed.

Attempt 4–Generalizing.  What if the problem was rephrased to make it an exploration of quadrilateral properties?  Here’s a suggestion I think might make a dandy exploration project for students.

Given the quadrilateral with three sides labeled as above, but not drawn to scale, and perimeter 88, what more specific types of quadrilateral could be represented by the figure?

Checking types:

  • Rectangles and squares are already impossible.
  • There is one convoluted isosceles trapezoid possibility detailed in Attempt 3.
  • All four sides can’t be equal with the given information (Recovery attempt 2), so rhombus is eliminated.
  • Recovery attempt 1 showed that opposite sides could be equal, but since they then do not meet the perimeter requirement, a parallelogram is gone.
  • In a kite, there are two adjacent pairs of congruent sides.  There are two ways this could happen:  the unlabeled side could be 24, or it could be equal to 3x+2.
    • If the unlabeled is 24, then x-4=3x+2 \longrightarrow x=-3, an impossible result when plugged back into the given side expressions.
    • If the unlabeled side is 3x+2, then x-4=24 \longrightarrow x=28, making the unlabeled side 86 and the overall perimeter 220–much too large.  The quadrilateral cannot be kite.
  • All that remains is a trapezoid and a generic quadrilateral, for which there are no specific side lengths.  With one side unlabeled and therefore unrestricted, the quadrilateral could be constructed in many different ways so long as all sides are positive.  That means
    • x-4>0 \longrightarrow x>4 and
    • 3x+2>0 \longrightarrow x>-\frac{2}{3}.
    • In a quadrilateral, the sum of any three sides must be between half and all of the overall length of the perimeter.  In this case, 88>24+(x-4)+(3x+2)> \frac{1}{2} 88 \longrightarrow 5.5<x<16.5.
    • Putting all three of these together, you can have a trapezoid OR a generic quadrilateral for any 5.5<x<16.5.

CONCLUSION

The given information CAN define an isosceles trapezoid, but the route to and form of the solution is far more convoluted than I suspect the careless question writer intended.  Sans the isosceles trapezoid requirement, this figure can define only a generic quadrilateral or a trapezoid, and only then for values of x where 5.5<x<16.5.

Trying to make this problem work, despite its initial flaws, turned out to be a fun romp through a unit on quadrilateral classifications.  Running through all of the possibilities, the properties of quadrilaterals, and narrowing down the outcomes might make this problem variation a worthwhile student project, albeit very challenging for many, I think.

I just wish for the students the original problem hadn’t been so poorly written.  But if that had happened, I would have missed out on some fun.  Hopefully it will be worthwhile for some of your students.

Problems in Time

Here’s an easy enough challenge problem for students from Math Counts that I found on Twitter via Mathmovesu (@mathmovesu).

Seeing that problem, I wondered

On a 12-hour digital clock, at how many times during a 24-hour day will all of the digits showing the time be a palindrome?

Are all solutions to the original question automatically solutions to the palindrome variation?

What other questions could we ask here?  I’m particularly interested in questions students might develop.  After all, teachers shouldn’t be the only ones thinking, creating, and extending.

Anyone?

Unexpected Proof of the Pythagorean Theorem

Following is a neat discovery of an alternative proof of the Pythagorean Theorem resulting from the multiple solutions to the Circle and Square problem.  I’m sure someone has seen this before, as there are literally 100s of unique proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem, but this one was new to me.

The intersecting chord relationships in a circle can be proven using only similar triangles.  Proofs of these are at the bottom of this post, if needed.  Using only those, you can prove the Pythagorean Theorem.

PROOF:

The image below–a revision of the diagram from my previous post–shows diameter DE in circle C.  Chord AB is a side of the given square from the Circle and Square problem and is bisected by symmetry into two segments, each of length a.  Let  be the radius of circle C.  Let the portion of DE from point C to chord AB have length b.  Because AB is a chord bisected by diameter DE, two right triangles are created, as shown.

pythag3

AB and DE are intersecting chords, so a \cdot a = (r-b) \cdot (r+b).  Expanding the right side and moving the b^2 term to the other side gives the Pythagorean Theorem.

Short and sweet once the chord relationships are established.

SUPPORTING PROOF 1:

In the image below, AB and CD are any two chords intersecting at point E.  Vertical angles give \angle DEA \cong \angle BEC .  Because \angle ADE and \angle CBE are inscribed angles sharing arc AC, they are also congruent.

pythag1

That means \Delta ADE \sim \Delta CBE, which gives \displaystyle \frac{x}{w} = \frac{y}{z}, or x \cdot z = w \cdot y.  QED

SUPPORTING PROOF 2:
Show that if a diameter bisects a chord, the diameter and chord are perpendicular.  Start with the vertical diameter of circle C bisecting chord AB.

pythag2

It should be straightforward to show \Delta ADC \cong \Delta BDC by SSS.  That means  corresponding angles \angle ADC \cong \angle BDC; as they also from a linear pair, those angles are both right, and the proof is established.

Circle and Square

Here’s another great geometry + algebra problem, posed by Megan Schmidt and pitched by Justin Aion to some students in his Geometry class.

Following is the problem as Justin posed it yesterday.

circle1

Justin described the efforts of three of his students’ on his his ‘blog.  Following is my more generalized approach.  Don’t read further if you want to solve this problem for yourself!

SOLUTION ALERT!!!

My first instinct in any case like this is build it in a dynamic geometry package and play.  Using my TI-Nspire, without loss of generality, I graphed a circle centered at the origin, constructed a tangent segment at the bottom of the circle centered on the y-axis, and then used that segment to construct a square.  I recognized that the locus of the upper right corners of all such squares would form a line.

circle2

That made it clear to me that for any circle, there was a unique square that intersected the circle three times as Megan had posed.

Seeing this and revealing its algebraic bias, my mind conceived an algebraic solution.  Assuming the radius of the circle is R, the equation of my circle is x^2+y^2=R^2 making the lower y-intercept of the circle (0,-R).  That made y=2x-R the locus line containing the upper right corner of the square.

circle6

To find generic coordinates of the upper right corner of the square in terms of R, I just needed to solve the system of equations containing the circle and the line.  That’s easy enough to compute by hand if you can handle quadratic algebra.  That manipulation is not relevant right now, so my Nspire CAS’s version is:

circle4

The output confirms the two intersections are (0,-R) and the unknown at \displaystyle \left( \frac{4R}{5} , \frac{3R}{5} \right).

Because of the horizontal symmetry of the square with respect to the y-axis, the system solution shows that the generic length of the side of the square is \displaystyle 2\left( \frac{4R}{5} \right) = \frac{8R}{5} .  The circle’s y-intercept at (0,-R) means the generic diameter of the circle is 2R.

Therefore, the generic ratio of the circle’s diameter to the square’s side length is

\displaystyle \frac{diameter}{side} = \frac{2R}{(8R)/5} = \frac{5}{4}.

And this is independent of the circle’s radius!  The diameter of the circle is always \frac{5}{4} of the square’s side.

CONCLUSION:

For Megan’s particular case with a side length of 20, that gives a circle diameter of 25, confirming Justin’s students’ solution.

Does anyone have a different approach?  I’m happy to compile and share all I get.

AN ASIDE:

While not necessary for the generalized solution, it was fun to see a 3-4-5 right triangle randomly appear in Quadrant 1.

circle5