Saturday, September 22, 2012

Toys and tools for exploring the Parabola

Following on from three ideas to introduce locus, here are three ideas I used to help make the locus of the parabola come alive for my students. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I believe in the benefits of hands on exploration of mathematical objects - and these are very hands on!

The three ideas are:
  • Use a MIRA mirror to construct a parabola. My senior students loved this activity- a chance to revert to back to childhood, while still being challenging.
  • Use GeoGebra to construct a parabola given any arbitrary focus point and directrix. Try this with non-standard orientations.
  • Be entranced by a wonderful 3D optical illusion toy that exploits the properties of the parabola.

1. Using a MIRA mirror (MIRA math tool) to construct a parabola
I'm extremely fortunate to have a box of these in my faculty storeroom:
While they look like tools for the junior math room (and they are wonderful to use in this context!), there's no reason our senior students should be locked out from using them! Here is a worksheet that give instructions on constructing a parabola with the MIRA mirror.  It's a really fun activity - a chance for senior students to play a little - and a great opportunity to ask the "why" question - reinforcing the idea of locus and the locus definition of a parabola.

Locus and Parabola MIRA Parabola GHT0501

2. Constructing a parabola using GeoGebra.
Why do I need special help to construct a parabola in GeoGebra you may say? Of course GeoGebra can construct a parabola with zero effort. But this guide explores how to construct a parabola using the locus approach.

Can you find the parabola given any arbitrary focus
point F and directrix AB?

Locus and Parabola Make a Parabola GHT0301

3. Discover something special about the parabola
A terrific toy worthy of being in your mathematics (and science) classroom is the Optigone Mirage®.

The Optigone  Mirage® is a pair of twin parabolic mirrors, arranged to project
a 3D image floating above the top of the kit. In this image from a paper by Christian Ucke,
the pig is actually inside the mirrors.
As always, encourage students to play with the toy (not that they will need encouragement - my students had their smartphones out takings photographs within seconds!), then ask the Why? question. Even though I purchased* one of these for my senior mathematics class, students across all my classes were entranced by it - and it gave me great pleasure to say to the juniors "you will learn how it works in your maths and science classes in a few years".

* Sadly I could not find a convenient way to purchase one of these in Australia - so I ended up buying a  clone from Australian Geographic.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How do you do that in GeoGebra?

Looking back on my own high school mathematics education, I realise I never really knew what a parallelogram was. I never knew how it 'worked', how its angles and diagonals operated, how they changed when the slope of the parallel lines was changed. The rhombus? All I could really say - if I remembered it at all - was it was a kind of squashed up square. If only I had  been given a dynamic geometry tool to play with! As a teacher now, I strive to have my students actually touch mathematical objects - to move them, push them, pull them, to watch what happens. I'm convinced that if students do that, so long as they are reflecting on what is happening to the objects (and why), they will remember them for life.  And the ideal tool for hands-on interaction: GeoGebra.  Free software, runs on Windows, Apple and Linux (anything that runs Java), backed by a community of hundreds of thousands of teachers using and sharing GeoGebra resources.

A resource I haven't found yet though is a set of simple, one page instructions I can give to students showing how to construct a certain mathematical objects in GeoGebra, so I have begun building some.

Here's the first installment:

For Junior and Middle School
How to construct a rhombus. This one appears simple but can be confusing - practice it first before giving to students.
For Senior School

I have put these links on a new GeoGebra HowTo page in this blog. These files are also available at the Maths Faculty sharing repository.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Three teaching ideas for introducing locus

Here's three ideas I use for introducing locus.

1. What makes these shapes? Have you ever looked down from an airplane window and seen a sight like this? Something you will often see above large scale farming areas:

Mid-West Agriculture
Centre Pivot Irrigation - an example of locus of the circle.
Photo: Etienne Boucher CC-BY-BY-NC-SA 
Give the students some time to digest these images - you will hear lots of wild theories.

Then show this picture and see if they can work it out:

Center-pivot irrigation
“Centre Pivot Irrigation” Matt Green CC-BY-NC-SA
The Wikipedia page on Centre Pivot Irrigation has lots more interesting information.

2. Acting the Goat.  Tie yourself with a rope to a chair or desk and pretend to be a goat. Explain how goats will eat absolutely everything in sight. Model the behaviour. A good laugh - and your class won't forget the locus of a circle or the concept of a constraint determining the locus. Then extend the idea to different situations of a goat on a leash (tied to a fence with a sliding leash, etc).
Built the idea of a locus by "acting the goat".

3. Who cares about locus?  Show an image like this:

Astronaut Stephen K. Robinson, STS-114 mission specialist, 
anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station’s Canadarm2.
Photo: NASA

This person certainly cares about locus! Also a good opportunity to raise awareness of the International Space Station. More information on the Canadarm2 at

I said three ideas? Sorry - I can't resist sharing three more ...

4. "Locus Pocus" : A high quality video about locus well worth showing in class is Erica Morabito's Locus Pocus.

I like this video because it creates some memorable visual representations of specific locus problems that students need to know while also being entertaining and succinct (lesson time is a precious resource!).

5. Introduce the ellipse : Most students have an idea what an ellipse is, but very few know how to make them or the locus idea behind them. This YouTube clip give a good demonstration:

and I wrap up this discussion with a picture of my favourite example of an ellipse in action:

Locus of the ellipse at work in the universe:
a stunning NASA image of Io orbiting Jupiter.
Yes - another segue into astronomy.  Locus is manifest throughout our universe - it would be remiss of us not to show such stunning images of it at work.

6. Work the Geometry 'vs' Algebra dynamic: I find it helps students to be explicit about the two different approaches to curves (geometric versus algebraic). It seems to me many students prefer the algebraic - so we need to work extra hard to show the virtue and value of the locus view. I reintroduce our fellow travelers Euclid and Descartes and show the dynamic at work - that we want to be able to switch between them with ease.

Every time I have an idea or problem to develop with the class, I invoke the Euclid/Descartes duo. It's fun to have great mathematicians in the classroom with you - and it helps develop a broader of mathematics as a dynamic, developing intellectual inquiry - something students can participate in and perhaps even extend.

Next post in this sequence: Teaching ideas for introducing the locus of the parabola.