A problem I assigned my precalculus class this past Thursday ended up with multiple solutions by the time we finished. Huzzah for student creativity!
Find equations for all polynomial functions, , of degree for which and .
After they had worked on this (along with several variations on the theme), four very different ways of thinking about this problem emerged. All were valid and even led to a lesson I hadn’t planned–proving that, even though they looked different algebraically, all were equivalent. I present their approaches (and a few extras) in the order they were offered in our post-solving debriefing.
The commonality among the approaches was their recognition that 3 non-collinear points uniquely define a vertical parabola, so they didn’t need to worry about polynomials of degree 0 or 1. (They haven’t yet heard about rotated curves that led to my earlier post on rotated quadratics.)
Solution 1–Regression: Because only 3 points were given, a quadratic regression would derive a perfectly fitting quadratic equation. Using their TI-Nspire CASs, they started by entering the 3 ordered pairs in a Lists&Spreadsheets window. Most then went to a Calculator window to compute a quadratic regression. Below, I show the same approach using a Data&Statistics window instead so I could see simultaneously the curve fit and the given points.
The decimals were easy enough to interpret, so even though they were presented in decimal form, these students reported .
For a couple seconds after this was presented, I honestly felt a little cheated. I was hoping they would tap the geometric or algebraic properties of quadratics to get their equations. But I then I remembered that I clearly hadn’t make that part of my instructions. After my initial knee-jerk reaction, I realized this group of students had actually done exactly what I explicitly have been encouraging them to do: think freely and take advantage of every tool they have to find solutions. Nothing in the problem statement suggested technology or regressions, so while I had intended a more geometric approach, I realized I actually owed these students some kudos for a very creative, insightful, and technology-based solution. This and Solution 2 were the most frequently chosen approaches.
Solution 2–Systems: Equations of quadratic functions are typically presented in standard, factored, or vertex form. Since neither two zeros nor the vertex were explicitly given, the largest portion of the students used the standard form, to create a 3×3 system of equations. Some solved this by hand, but most invoked a CAS solution. Notice the elegance of the solve command they used, working from the generic polynomial equation that kept them from having to write all three equations, keeping their focus on the form of the equation they sought.
This created the same result as Solution 1, .
CAS Aside: No students offered these next two solutions, but I believe when using a CAS, it is important for users to remember that the machine typically does not care what output form you want. The standard form is the only “algebraically simple” approach when setting up a solution by hand, but the availability of technology makes solving for any form equally accessible.
The next screen shows that the vertex and factored forms are just as easily derived as the standard form my students found in Solution 2.
I was surprised when the last line’s output wasn’t in vertex form, , but the coefficients in its expanded form clearly show the equivalence between this form and the standard forms derived in Solutions 1 and 2–a valuable connection.
Solution 3–Symmetry: Two students said they noticed that guaranteed the vertex of the parabola occurred at . Because defined one real root of the unknown quadratic, the parabola’s symmetry guaranteed another at , giving potential equation . They substituted the given (0,2) to solve for a, giving final equation as confirmed by the CAS approach above.
Solution 4–Transformations: One of the big lessons I repeat in every class I teach is this:
If you don’t like how a question is posed. Change it!
Just remember to adjust the answer.
Notice that two of the given points have the same y-coordinate. If that y-coordinate had been 0 (instead of its given value, 2), a factored form would be simple. Well, why not force them to be x-intercepts by translating all of the given points down 2 units?
The transformed data show x-intercepts at 0 and 1 with another ordered pair at . From here, the factored form is easy: . Substituting gives and the final equation is .
Of course, this is an equation for the transformed points. Sliding the result back up two units, , gives an equation for the given points. Aside from its lead coefficient, this last equation looked very different from the other forms, but some quick expansion proved its equivalence.
Conclusion: It would have been nice if someone had used the symmetry noted in Solution 3 to attempt a vertex-form answer via systems. Given the vertex at with an unknown y-coordinate, a potential equation is . Substituting and either creates a 2×2 system of linear equations, . From there, a by-hand or CAS solution would have been equally acceptable to me.
That the few alternative approaches I offered above weren’t used didn’t matter in the end. My students were creative, followed their own instincts to find solutions that aligned with their thinking, and clearly appreciated the alternative ways their classmates used to find answers. Creativity and individual expression reigned, while everyone broadened their understanding that there’s not just one way to do math.
It was a good day.