Author Archives: chrisharrow

Painting and Probability

 

Here’s a cool probability problem the start of which is accessible to middle and high school students with careful reasoning.  It was posted by Alexander Bogomolny on Cut the Knot a week ago. I offer what I think is a cool extension of the problem following the initial credits.

The next day Mike Lawler tweeted another phenomenal video solution worked out with his boys during Family Math.

Mike’s videos show his boys thinking through simpler discrete cases of the problem and their eventual case-by-case solution to the nxnxn question.  The last video on the page gives a lovely alternative solution completely bypassing the case-by-case analyses.  This is also “Solution 1” on Alexander’s page.

EXTENDING THE PROBLEM:

When I first encountered the problem, I wanted to think about it before reading any solutions.  As with Mike’s boys, I was surprised early on when the probability for a 2x2x2 cube was \displaystyle \frac{1}{2} and the probability for a 3x3x3 cube was \displaystyle \frac{1}{3}.  That was far too pretty to be a coincidence.  My solution exactly mirrored the nxnxn case-by-case analysis in Mike’s videos:  the probability of rolling a painted red face up from a randomly selected smaller cube is \displaystyle \frac{1}{n}.

Surely something this simple and clean could be generalized.  Since a cube can be considered a “3-dimensional square”, I re-phrased Alexander’s question into two dimensions.  The trickier part was thinking what it would mean to “roll” a 2-dimensional shape.

The outside of an nxn square is painted red and is chopped into n^2 unit squares.  The latter are thoroughly mixed up and put into a bag.  One small square is withdrawn at random from the bag and spun on a flat surface.  What is the probability that the spinner stops with a red side facing you?

Shown below is a 4×4 square, but in all sizes of 2-dimensional squares, there are three possible types in the bag:  those with 2, 1, or 0 sides painted.

Square1

I solved my first variation case by case.  In any nxn square,

  • There are 4 corner squares with 2 sides painted.  The probability of picking one of those squares and then spinning a red side is \displaystyle \frac{4}{n^2} \cdot \frac{2}{4} = \frac{2}{n^2}.
  • There are 4(n-2) edge squares not in a corner with 1 side painted.  The probability of picking one of those squares and then spinning a red side is \displaystyle \frac{4(n-2)}{n^2} \cdot \frac{1}{4} = \frac{n-2}{n^2}.
  • All other squares have 0 sides painted, so the probability of picking one of those squares and then spinning a red side is 0.
  • Adding the probabilities for the separate cases gives the total probability:  \displaystyle \frac{2}{n^2}+\frac{n-2}{n^2}=\frac{1}{n}

After reading Mike’s and Alexander’s posts, I saw a much easier approach.

  • Paint all 4 edges of an nxn square, and divide each painted edge into n painted unit segments.  This creates 4 \cdot n total painted small segments.
  • Decompose the nxn original square into n^2 unit squares.  Each unit square has 4 edges giving 4 \cdot n^2 total edges.
  • Because every edge of every unit square is equally likely to be spun, the total probability of randomly selecting a smaller square and spinning a red side is \displaystyle \frac{4n}{4n^2}=\frac{1}{n}.

The dimensions of the “square” don’t seem to matter!

WARNING: 

Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”  The math after this point has the potential to stretch…

EXTENDING THE PROBLEM MORE:

I now wondered whether this was a general property.

In the 2-dimensional square, 1-dimensional edges were painted and the square was spun to find the probability of a red edge facing.  With the originally posed cube, 2-dimensional faces were painted and the cube was tossed to find the probability of an upward-facing red face.  These cases suggest that when a cube of some dimension with edge length n is painted, is decomposed into unit cubes of the original dimension, and is spun/tossed to show a cube of one smaller dimension, then the probability of getting a painted smaller-dimensional cube of is always \displaystyle \frac{1}{n}, independent of the dimensions occupied by the cube.

Going beyond the experiences of typical middle or high school students, I calculated this probability for a 4-dimensional hypercube (a tesseract).

  • The exterior of a tesseract is 8 cubes.  Ignore the philosophical difficulty of what it means to “paint” (perhaps fill?) an entire cube.  After all, we’re already beyond the experience of our 3-dimensions.
  • Paint/fill all 8 cubes on the surface of the tesseract, and divide each painted cube into n^3 painted unit cubes.  This creates 8 \cdot n^3 total painted unit cubes.
  • Decompose the original tesseract into n^4 unit tesseracts.  Each unit tesseract has 8 cubes giving 8 \cdot n^4 total unit cubes.
  • Because every unit cube on every unit tesseract is equally likely to be “rolled”, the total probability of randomly selecting a smaller tesseract and rolling a red cube is \displaystyle \frac{8n^3}{8n^4}=\frac{1}{n}.

The probability is independent of dimension! 

More formally,

The exterior of a d-dimensional hypercube with edge length n is painted red and is chopped into n^d unit d-dimensional hypercubes.  The latter are put into a bag of sufficient dimension to hold them and thoroughly mixed up.  A unit d-dimensional hypercube is withdrawn at random from the bag and tossed.  The probability that the unit d-dimensional hypercube lands with a red (d-1)-dimensional hypercube showing is \displaystyle \frac{1}{n} .

PROOF:

  • The exterior of a d-dimensional hypercube is comprised of 2d (d-1)-dimensional hypercubes of dimension (d-1).  Paint/fill all 2d surface hypercubes and divide each painted (d-1)-dimensional hypercube into n^{d-1} painted unit hypercubes.  This creates 2d \cdot n^{d-1} total painted unit hypercubes.
  • Decompose the original tesseract into n^d unit d-dimensional hypercubes.  Each unit d-dimensional hypercube has 2d surface (d-1)-dimensional hypercubes giving 2d \cdot n^d total surface unit d-dimensional hypercubes.
  • Because every unit (d-1)-dimensional hypercube on the surface of every unit d-dimensional hypercube is equally likely to be “rolled”, the total probability of randomly selecting a unit d-dimensional hypercube and rolling a (d-1)-dimensional red-painted hypercube is \displaystyle \frac{2d \cdot n^{d-1}}{2d \cdot n^d}=\frac{1}{n}.

 

I hope you can now return to something close to your old dimensions.

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Inscribed Right Angle Proof Without Words

Earlier this past week, I assigned the following problem to my 8th grade Geometry class for homework.  They had not explored the relationships between circles and inscribed angles, so I added dashed auxiliary segment AD as a hint.

What follows first is the algebraic solution I expected most to find and then an elegant transformational explanation one of my students produced.

PROOF 1:

Given circle A with diameter BC and point D on the circle.  Prove triangle BCD is a right triangle.

RightAngle1

After some initial explorations on GeoGebra sliding point D around to discover that its angle measure was always 90^{\circ} independent of the location of D, most successful solutions recognized congruent radii AB, AC, and AD, creating isosceles triangles CAD and BAD.  That gave congruent base angles x in triangle CAD, and y in BAD.

RightAngle2

The interior angle sum of a triangle gave (x)+(x+y)+(y)=180^{\circ}, or m \angle CDB = x+y = 90^{\circ}, confirming that BCD was a right triangle.

PROOF 2:

Then, one student surprised us.  She marked the isosceles base angles as above before rotating \Delta BCD 180^{\circ} about point A.

RightAngle3

Because the diameter rotated onto itself, the image and pre-image combined to form an quadrilateral with all angles congruent.  Because every equiangular quadrilateral is a rectangle, M had confirmed BCD was a right triangle.

CONCLUSION:

I don’t recall seeing M’s proof before, but I found it a delightfully elegant application of quadrilateral properties.  In my opinion, her rotation is a beautiful proof without words solution.

Encourage freedom, flexibility of thought, and creativity, and be prepared to be surprised by your students’ discoveries!

Quadratics + Tangent = ???

 

Here’s a very pretty problem I encountered on Twitter from Mike Lawler 1.5 months ago.

I’m late to the game replying to Mike’s post, but this problem is the most lovely combination of features of quadratic and trigonometric functions I’ve ever encountered in a single question, so I couldn’t resist.  This one is well worth the time for you to explore on your own before reading further.

My full thoughts and explorations follow.  I have landed on some nice insights and what I believe is an elegant solution (in Insight #5 below).  Leading up to that, I share the chronology of my investigations and thought processes.  As always, all feedback is welcome.

WARNING:  HINTS AND SOLUTIONS FOLLOW

Investigation  #1:

My first thoughts were influenced by spoilers posted as quick replies to Mike’s post.  The coefficients of the underlying quadratic, A^2-9A+1=0, say that the solutions to the quadratic sum to 9 and multiply to 1.  The product of 1 turned out to be critical, but I didn’t see just how central it was until I had explored further.  I didn’t immediately recognize the 9 as a red herring.

Basic trig experience (and a response spoiler) suggested the angle values for the tangent embedded in the quadratic weren’t common angles, so I jumped to Desmos first.  I knew the graph of the overall given equation would be ugly, so I initially solved the equation by graphing the quadratic, computing arctangents, and adding.

tan1

Insight #1:  A Curious Sum

The sum of the arctangent solutions was about 1.57…, a decimal form suspiciously suggesting a sum of \pi/2.  I wasn’t yet worried about all solutions in the required [0,2\pi ] interval, but for whatever strange angles were determined by this equation, their sum was strangely pretty and succinct.  If this worked for a seemingly random sum of 9 for the tangent solutions, perhaps it would work for others.

Unfortunately, Desmos is not a CAS, so I turned to GeoGebra for more power.

Investigation #2:  

In GeoGebra, I created a sketch to vary the linear coefficient of the quadratic and to dynamically calculate angle sums.  My procedure is noted at the end of this post.  You can play with my GeoGebra sketch here.

The x-coordinate of point G is the sum of the angles of the first two solutions of the tangent solutions.

Likewise, the x-coordinate of point H is the sum of the angles of all four angles of the tangent solutions required by the problem.

tan2

Insight #2:  The Angles are Irrelevant

By dragging the slider for the linear coefficient, the parabola’s intercepts changed, but as predicted in Insights #1, the angle sums (x-coordinates of points G & H) remained invariant under all Real values of points A & B.  The angle sum of points C & D seemed to be \pi/2 (point G), confirming Insight #1, while the angle sum of all four solutions in [0,2\pi] remained 3\pi (point H), answering Mike’s question.

The invariance of the angle sums even while varying the underlying individual angles seemed compelling evidence that that this problem was richer than the posed version. 

Insight #3:  But the Angles are bounded

The parabola didn’t always have Real solutions.  In fact, Real x-intercepts (and thereby Real angle solutions) happened iff the discriminant was non-negative:  B^2-4AC=b^2-4*1*1 \ge 0.  In other words, the sum of the first two positive angles solutions for y=(tan(x))^2-b*tan(x)+1=0 is \pi/2 iff \left| b \right| \ge 2, and the sum of the first four solutions is 3\pi under the same condition.  These results extend to the equalities at the endpoints iff the double solutions there are counted twice in the sums.  I am not convinced these facts extend to the complex angles resulting when -2<b<2.

I knew the answer to the now extended problem, but I didn’t know why.  Even so, these solutions and the problem’s request for a SUM of angles provided the insights needed to understand WHY this worked; it was time to fully consider the product of the angles.

Insight #4:  Finally a proof

It was now clear that for \left| b \right| \ge 2 there were two Quadrant I angles whose tangents were equal to the x-intercepts of the quadratic.  If x_1 and x_2 are the quadratic zeros, then I needed to find the sum A+B where tan(A)=x_1 and tan(B)=x_2.

From the coefficients of the given quadratic, I knew x_1+x_2=tan(A)+tan(B)=9 and x_1*x_2=tan(A)*tan(B)=1.

Employing the tangent sum identity gave

\displaystyle tan(A+B) = \frac{tan(A)+tan(B)}{1-tan(A)tan(B)} = \frac{9}{1-1}

and this fraction is undefined, independent of the value of x_1+x_2=tan(A)+tan(B) as suggested by Insight #2.  Because tan(A+B) is first undefined at \pi/2, the first solutions are \displaystyle A+B=\frac{\pi}{2}.

Insight #5:  Cofunctions reveal essence

The tangent identity was a cute touch, but I wanted something deeper, not just an interpretation of an algebraic result.  (I know this is uncharacteristic for my typically algebraic tendencies.)  The final key was in the implications of tan(A)*tan(B)=1.

This product meant the tangent solutions were reciprocals, and the reciprocal of tangent is cotangent, giving

\displaystyle tan(A) = \frac{1}{tan(B)} = cot(B).

But cotangent is also the co-function–or complement function–of tangent which gave me

tan(A) = cot(B) = tan \left( \frac{\pi}{2} - B \right).

Because tangent is monotonic over every cycle, the equivalence of the tangents implied the equivalence of their angles, so A = \frac{\pi}{2} - B, or A+B = \frac{\pi}{2}.  Using the Insights above, this means the sum of the solutions to the generalization of Mike’s given equation,

(tan(x))^2+b*tan(x)+1=0 for x in [0,2\pi ] and any \left| b \right| \ge 2,

is always 3\pi with the fundamental reason for this in the definition of trigonometric functions and their co-functions.  QED

Insight #6:  Generalizing the Domain

The posed problem can be generalized further by recognizing the period of tangent: \pi.  That means the distance between successive corresponding solutions to the internal tangents of this problem is always \pi each, as shown in the GeoGebra construction above.

Insights 4 & 5 proved the sum of the angles at points C & D was \pi/2.  Employing the periodicity of tangent,  the x-coordinate of E = C+\pi and F = D+\pi, so the sum of the angles at points E & F is \frac{\pi}{2} + 2 \pi.

Extending the problem domain to [0,3\pi ] would add \frac{\pi}{2} + 4\pi more to the solution, and a domain of [0,4\pi ] would add an additional \frac{\pi}{2} + 6\pi.  Pushing the domain to [0,k\pi ] would give total sum

\displaystyle \left( \frac{\pi}{2} \right) + \left( \frac{\pi}{2} +2\pi \right) + \left( \frac{\pi}{2} +4\pi \right) + \left( \frac{\pi}{2} +6\pi \right) + ... + \left( \frac{\pi}{2} +2(k-1)\pi \right)

Combining terms gives a general formula for the sum of solutions for a problem domain of [0,k\pi ]

\displaystyle k * \frac{\pi}{2} + \left( 2+4+6+...+2(k-1) \right) * \pi =

\displaystyle = k * \frac{\pi}{2} + (k)(k-1) \pi =

\displaystyle = \frac{\pi}{2} * k * (2k-1)

For the first solutions in Quadrant I, [0,\pi] means k=1, and the sum is \displaystyle \frac{\pi}{2}*1*(2*1-1) = \frac{\pi}{2}.

For the solutions in the problem Mike originally posed, [0,2\pi] means k=2, and the sum is \displaystyle \frac{\pi}{2}*2*(2*2-1) = 3\pi.

I think that’s enough for one problem.

APPENDIX

My GeoGebra procedure for Investigation #2:

  • Graph the quadratic with a slider for the linear coefficient, y=x^2-b*x+1.
  • Label the x-intercepts A & B.
  • The x-values of A & B are the outputs for tangent, so I reflected these over y=x to the y-axis to construct A’ and B’.
  • Graph y=tan(x) and construct perpendiculars at A’ and B’ to determine the points of intersection with tangent–Points C, D, E, and F in the image below
  • The x-intercepts of C, D, E, and F are the angles required by the problem.
  • Since these can be points or vectors in Geogebra, I created point G by G=C+D.  The x-intercept of G is the angle sum of C & D.
  • Likewise, the x-intercept of point H=C+D+E+F is the required angle sum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Applications of Logarithm Algebra

This post discusses two higher level applications of logarithmic algebra typically seen by students in Algebra 2.

An aspect of brain and learning research I incorporate in my classes is that concepts are committed more securely to long-term memory when the ideas are introduced, some time elapses, and are then re-encountered.  The idea is that when you “learn” an idea, have a chance to “forget” it, and then have an opportunity to re-learn it or see it in a new context, you strengthen your long-term understanding .  In this spirit, I introduce exponential and logarithmic algebra in Algebra 2 classes and then return to those ideas multiple times.  Here are two extensions from following courses–one from Calculus and one from PreCalculus/Statistics.

LOGARITHM EXTENSION #1:  CALCULUS

Scenario:  Whether by hand or with a CAS for rapid data creation, students explore derivatives of variations of ln(k*x) for any k>0.

logcalc1

When all return \frac{1}{x}, most initially can’t quite believe the value of is irrelevant.  Those who recall transformations are further disturbed that the slope of y=ln(k*x) is invariant under all levels of horizontal scaling.  Surely when a curve is stretched, its slope changes, right?

The most common resolution I’ve seen invokes the Chain Rule to cancel k algebraically .

\frac{d}{dx} ln \left( k*x \right) = \frac{1}{k*x} * k = \frac{1}{x}

This proves the derivative of ln(k*x) is invariant for all k>0, but it doesn’t get at WHY.  Many students remain dissatisfied.  Enter log algebra.

As explained at the end of my previous post, every horizontal stretch of any log graph is equivalent to a vertical translation of the parent graph.  That’s the core of what’s being claimed by the not-fully-appreciated log algebra property,

log_b(k*x) = log_b(k) + log_b(x).

Applied to this problem, \frac{d}{dx} ln \left( k*x \right) = \frac{1}{x} because ln(k*x) = ln(k) + ln(x), making every instance of y=ln(k*x) a simple vertical translation of y=ln(x).  Their derivatives are equal precisely because all derivatives with respect to x are invariant under vertical translations.  Knowing the family of logarithmic functions has the special property that every horizontal scale change is equivalent to some vertical slide completely explains the paradox.

LOGARITHM EXTENSION #2:  PRECALCULUS/STATISTICS

SCENARIO:  Having only experienced linear regressions, students encounter curved Quadrant I data and need to find a model.

Balancing multiple perspectives, it is critical for students to see mathematics used in precise algebraic scenarios and in “fuzzy” scenarios like fitting lines to data that are inevitably imprecise due to inherent variability in the measured data.  In my Algebra 2 classes, we explore linear regressions and how they work alongside the precise algebra of finding equations of lines and more general polynomials that must pass through given specific predetermined ordered pairs.

sd1

I typically don’t move beyond linear regressions in Algebra 2, but return in PreCalculus and Statistics classes to the reality that we may understand how to fit lines to generally linear data, but we are limited if the data curves.  For curved Quadrant I data (like above), it is difficult to know what curve might model the information.  Exponential functions and power functions (and others) have this shape, but these are wildly different types of functions.  How can you know which to use?  Re-enter logarithms…

(The remainder of this post is is an overly abbreviated explanation meant only to show a powerful use of log algebra.  If there’s interest, I can explore the complete connection between exponential, linear, and power regressions in another post.)

If you suspect data is exponential, then an equation of the form y = a*b^x will model the data, while power data should be modeled by y=a*x^b.  The equations are similar, and both have exponents.  From prior experiences with log algebra, some students recall that logarithmic functions have the unique algebraic property of being able to write expressions with exponents in an equivalent form without exponents.

Applying logs to the exponential equation and applying log algebra gives

y=a*b^x
ln(y) = ln \left( a*b^x \right)
ln(y) = ln(a) + x*ln(b).

The parallel application to power functions is

y=a*x^b
ln(y) = ln \left( a*x^b \right)
ln(y) = ln(a) + b*ln(x).

In both cases, the last equation is a variation of a linear equation–a transformed y-value equal to a constant, ln(a) added to the product of another constant and either x or a transformed x.  That is, both are some form of Y=B+MX.

So, familiar logarithms allow you to change unfamiliar and significantly curved exponential or power data back into a familiar linear form.  At their cores, exponential and power regressions are just simple transformations of linear regressions.  In another post in which the previous image was explained, I leveraged this curve-straightening idea in a statistics class to have my students discover the formula for standard deviations of distributions of sample means.

CONCLUSION:

Research shows that aiming for student mastery on initial exposure is counterproductive.  We all learn best by repeated exposure to concepts with time gaps between experiences.  Hopefully these two examples can give two good ways to bring back log algebra.

From another perspective, exploring the implications of mathematics beyond just algebraic manipulations often grants key insights to scenarios that don’t seem related to when ideas were first encountered.

Exponentials Don’t Stretch

OK, this post’s title is only half true, but transforming exponentials can lead to counter-intuitive results.  This post shares a cool transformations activity using dynamic graphing software–a perfect set-up for a mind-bending algebra or precalculus student lesson in the coming year.  I use Desmos in this post, but this can be reproduced on any graphing software with sliders.

THE SCENARIO

You can vertically stretch any exponential function as much as you want, and the shape of the curve will never change!

But that doesn’t make any sense.  Doesn’t stretching a curve by definition change its curvature?

The answer is no.  Not when exponentials are vertically stretched.  It is an inevitable result from the multiplication of common bases implies add exponents property:

b^a * b^c = b^{a+c}

I set up a Desmos page to explore this property dynamically (shown below).  The base of the exponential doesn’t matter; I pre-set the base of the parent function (line 1) to 2 (in line 2), but feel free to change it.

exp1

From its form, the line 3 orange graph is a vertical stretch of the parent function; you can vary the stretch factor with the line 4 slider.  Likewise, the line 5 black graph is a horizontal translation of the parent, and the translation is controlled by the line 6 slider.  That’s all you need!

Let’s say I wanted to quadruple the height of my function, so I move the a slider to 4.  Now play with the h slider in line 6 to see if you can achieve the same results with a horizontal translation.  By the time you change h to -2, the horizontal translation aligns perfectly with the vertical stretch.  That’s a pretty strange result if you think about it.

exp2

Of course it has to be true because y = 2^{x-(-2)} = 2^x*2^2 = 4*2^x.  Try any positive stretch you like, and you will always be able to find some horizontal translation that gives you the exact same result.

Likewise, you can horizontally slide any exponential function (growth or decay) as much as you like, and there is a single vertical stretch that will produce the same results.

The implications of this are pretty deep.  Because the result of any horizontal translation of any function is a graph congruent to the initial function, AND because every vertical stretch is equivalent to a horizontal translation, then vertically stretching any exponential function produces a graph congruent to the unstretched parent curve.  That is, any vertical stretch of any exponential will never change its curvature!  Graphs make it easier to see and explore this, but it takes algebra to (hopefully) understand this cool exponential property.

NOT AN EXTENSION

My students inevitably ask if the same is true for horizontal stretches and vertical slides of exponentials.  I encourage them to play with the algebra or create another graph to investigate.  Eventually, they discover that horizontal stretches do bend exponentials (actually changing base, i.e., the growth rate), making it impossible for any translation of the parent to be congruent with the result.

ABSOLUTELY AN EXTENSION

But if a property is true for a function, then the inverse of the property generally should be true for the inverse of the function.  In this case, that means the transformation property that did not work for exponentials does work for logarithms!  That is,

Any horizontal stretch of any logarithmic function is congruent to some vertical translation of the original function.  But for logarithms, vertical stretches do morph the curve into a different shape.  Here’s a Desmos page demonstrating the log property.

exp3

The sum property of logarithms proves the existence of this equally strange property:

log(A) + log(x) = log(A*x)

CONCLUSION

Hopefully the unexpected transformational congruences will spark some nice discussions, while the graphical/algebraic equivalences will reinforce the importance of understanding mathematics more than one way.

Enjoy the strange transformational world of exponential and log functions!

Quadratics and CAS

I’m returning to my ‘blog after a prolonged absence.  My next several posts will explore ideas I shared and learned at the USACAS-10 conference hosted at Hawken School last weekend.

Finding equations for quadratic functions has long been a staple of secondary mathematics.  Historically, students are given information about some points on the graph of the quadratic, and efficient students typically figure out which form of the equation to use.  This post from my Curious Quadratics a la CAS presentation explores a significant mindset change that evolves once computer algebra enters the learning environment.

HISTORIC BACKGROUND:

Students spend lots of time (too much?) learning how to manipulate algebraic expressions between polynomial forms.  Whether distributing, factoring, or completing the square, generations of students have spent weeks changing quadratic expressions between three common algebraic forms

Standard:  y=a*x^2+b*x+c

Factored:  y=a*(x-x_1)(x-x_2)

Vertex:  y=a*(x-h)^2+k

many times without ever really knowing why.  I finally grasped deeply the reason for this about 15 years ago in a presentation by Bernhard Kutzler of Austria.  Poorly paraphrasing Bernhard’s point, he said in more elegant phrasing,

We change algebraic forms of functions because different forms reveal different properties of the function and because no single form reveals everything about a function.

While any of what follows could be eventually derived from any of the three quadratic forms, in general the Standard Form explicitly gives the y-intercept, Factored Form states x-intercepts, and Vertex Form “reveals” the vertex (duh).  When working without electronic technology, students can gain efficiency by choosing to work with a quadratic form that blends well with given information.  To demonstrate this, here’s an example of the differences between non-tech and CAS approaches.

COMPARING APPROACHES:

For an example, determine all intercepts and the vertex of the parabola that passes through (10, 210)(5, 40), and (-2, -30).

NON-TECH:  Not knowing anything about the points, use Standard form, plug in all three points, and solve the resulting system.

y=a*x^2+b*x+c
210 = 100a+10b+c
40 = 25a+5b+c
-30 = 4a-2b+c

Use any approach you want to solve this 3×3 system to get a=2, b=4, and c=-30.

That immediately gives the y-intercept at -30.  Factoring to y=2(x+5)(x-3) or using the Quadratic Formula reveals the x-intercepts at -5 and 3.  Completing the square or leveraging symmetry between the known x-intercepts gives the vertex at (-1,-32).  Some less-confident students find all of the hinted-at manipulations in this paragraph burdensome or even daunting.

CAS APPROACH:  By declaring the form you want/need, you can directly get any information you require.  In the next three lines on my Nspire CAS, notice that the only difference in my commands is the form of the equation I want in the first part of the command.  Also notice my use of lists to simplify substitution of the given points.

quad2

The last line’s output gave two solutions only because I didn’t specify which of x1 and x2 was the larger x-intercept, so my Nspire gave me both.

The -30 y-intercept appears in the first output, the vertex in the second, and the x-intercepts in the third.  Any information is equally simple to obtain.

CONCLUSION:

In the end, it’s all about knowing what you want to find and how to ask questions of the tools you have available.  Understanding the algebra behind the solutions is important, but endless repetition of these tasks is not helpful, even though it may be easy to test.

Instead, focus on using what you know, explore for patterns, and ask good questions.  …And teach with a CAS!

 

Binomial Expansion Variation

Several years ago, I posed on this ‘blog a problem I learned from Natalie Jackucyn:

For some integers A, B, and n, one term of the expansion of (Ax+By)^n is 27869184x^5y^3.  What are the values of A, B, and n?

In this post, I reflect for a moment on what I’ve learned from the problem and outline a solution approach before sharing a clever alternative solution one of my students this year leveraged through her CAS-enabled investigation.

WHAT I LEARNED BEFORE THIS YEAR

Mostly, I’ve loved this problem for its “reversal” of traditional binomial expansion problems that typically give A, B, and n values and ask for either complete expansions or specific terms of the polynomial.  Both of these traditional tasks are easily managed via today’s technology.  In Natalie’s variation, neither the answer nor how you would proceed are immediately obvious.

The first great part of the problem is that it doesn’t seem to give enough information.  Second, it requires solvers to understand deeply the process of polynomial expansion.  Third, unlike traditional formulations, Natalie’s version doesn’t allow students to avoid deep thinking by using technology.

In the comments to my original post, Christopher Olah and a former student, Bryan Spellman, solved the problem via factoring and an Excel document, respectively.  Given my algebraic tendencies, I hadn’t considered Bryan’s Excel “search” approach, but one could relatively easily program Excel to provide an exhaustive search.  I now think of Bryan’s approach as a coding approach to a reasonably efficient search of the sample space of possible solutions.  Most of my students’ solutions over the years essentially approach the problem the same way, but less efficiently, by using one-case-at-a-time expansions via CAS commands until they stumble upon good values for A, B, and n.  Understandably, students taking this approach typically become the most frustrated.

Christopher’s approach paralleled my own.  The x and y exponents from the expanded term show that n=5+3=8.  Expanding a generic (Ax+By)^8 then gives a bit more information.  From my TI-Nspire CAS,

binomial1

so there are 56 ways an x^5y^3 term appears in this expansion before combining like terms (explained here, if needed).  Dividing the original coefficient by 56 gives a^5b^3=497,664, the coefficient of x^5y^3.

binomial2

The values of a and b are integers, so factoring 497,664 shows these coefficients are both co-multiples of 2 and 3, but which ones?  In essence, this defines a system of equations.  The 3 has an exponent of 5, so it can easily be attributed to a, but the 11 is not a multiple of either 5 or 3, so it must be a combination.  Quick experimentation with the exponents leads to 11=5*1+3*2, so 2^1 goes to a and 2^2 goes to b.  This results in a=3*2=6 and b=2^2=4.

WHAT A STUDENT TAUGHT ME THIS YEAR

After my student, NB, arrived at a^5b^3=497,664 , she focused on roots–not factors–for her solution.  The exponents of a and b suggested using either a cubed or a fifth root.

binomial3
binomial3

The fifth root would extract only the value of a if b had only singleton factors–essentially isolating the a and b values–while the cubed root would extract a combination of a and b factors, leaving only excess a factors inside the radical.  Her investigation was simplified by the exact answers from her Nspire CAS software.

binomial4

From the fifth root output, the irrational term had exponent 1/5, not the expected 3/5, so b must have had at least one prime factor with non-singular multiplicity.  But the cubed root played out perfectly.   The exponent–2/3–matched expectation, giving a=6, and the coefficient, 24, was the product of a and b, making b=4.  Clever.

EXTENSIONS & CONCLUSION

Admittedly, NB’s solution would have been complicated if the parameter was composed of something other than singleton prime factors, but it did present a fresh, alternative approach to what was becoming a comfortable problem for me.  I’m curious about exploring other arrangements of the parameters of (Ax+By)^n to see how NB’s root-based reasoning could be extended and how it would compare to the factor solutions I used before.  I wonder which would be “easier” … whatever “easier” means.

As a ‘blog topic for another day, I’ve learned much by sharing this particular problem with several teachers over the years.  In particular, the initial “not enough information” feel of the problem statement actually indicates the presence of some variations that lead to multiple solutions.  If you think about it, NB’s root variation of the solution suggests some direct paths to such possible formulations.  As intriguing as the possibilities here are, I’ve never assigned such a variation of the problem to my students.

As I finish this post, I’m questioning why I haven’t yet taken advantage of these possibilities.  That will change. Until then, perhaps you can find some interesting or alternative approaches to the underlying systems of equations in this problem.  Can you create a variation that has multiple solutions?  Under what conditions would such a variation exist?  How many distinct solutions could a problem like this have?