I posted in 2008 how I didn’t actually find related rates all that interesting/important in calculus. The problems that I could find were contrived, and I didn’t quite get the “bigger picture.” In 2011, I posted again about something I found from a conference that used Logger Pro, was pretty interesting, and helped me get at something less formulaic.
I still don’t know how I feel about related rates. I’m torn. Part of me wants to totally eliminate them from the curriculum (which means I can also possibly eliminate implicit differentiation, because right now I see one of the main purposes of implicit differentiation is to prime students for related rates). Part of me feels there is something conceptually deeper that I can get at with related rates, and I’m missing it.
I still don’t have a good approach, but this year, I am starting with the premise that students need to leave with one essential truth:
Often times, as we change one thing, it affects a number of other things. However, the way that the other things are affected can vary greatly.
Right now, to me, that’s the heart of related rates. (To be honest, it took some conversation with my co-teacher before we were able to stumble upon this essential understanding.)
In order to get at this, we are starting our related rates unit with these two worksheets. A nice bonus is that it gets students to think about the shape of a graph, which is what we’ll be embarking on next.
The TD;DR for the idea behind the worksheets: Students study a circle which has it’s radius increase by 1 cm each second, and see how that changes the area and circumference. Then students study a circle which has it’s area increase by 10 cm^2 each second, and see how that changes the radius and circumference. The big idea is that even though one thing is changing, that one thing affects a number of different things, and it changes them in different ways.
(A special thanks to Bowman for making the rocket and camera problem dynamic on Geogebra.)
It’s not like this is a deep investigation or they come out knowing anything super special. But the main takeaway that I want them to get from it becomes pretty apparent. And what’s really powerful (for me, as a teacher trying to illustrate this essential understanding) is seeing the graphs of how the various thing change.
I had students finish the first packet one night. Before we started going over it, or talking about it, I started today’s class asking for a volunteer to blow up balloons. (We got a second volunteer to tie the balloons.) While he practiced breathing even breaths, I tied and taped an empty balloon to the whiteboard.
Then I asked our esteemed volunteer to use one breath to blow up the first balloon. Taped it up. Again, for two breaths. Taped. Et cetera until we got a total of six balloons taped.
Then I asked what things are measurable in the balloons.
(We should have listed more. Color. What it’s made of. Thickness of rubber.]
Then I asked what we did to the balloon.
Added volume. A constant volume (ish) in each balloon.
Which of the other things changed as a result?
How did they change?
This five minute start to class reinforced the main idea (hopefully). We changed one thing. It changed a bunch of other things. But just because one thing changed in one particular way doesn’t mean that everything changed in that same way. For example, just because the volume increased at a constant rate doesn’t mean the radius changed at a constant rate.
This is about all I got for now. I’m going to teach the rest of the topic the way I always do. It’s not up to my personal standards, but I still am struggling to get it there. I suppose to do that, I’ll have to see a more nuanced bigger picture with related rates, or find something that approaches what’s happening more visually, dynamically, or conceptually.
PS. The more I mull it over, the more I think that geogebra has to be central to my approach next year… teaching students to make sliders to change one parameter, and having them develop something that dynamically illustrates how a number of other things change. And then analyzing how those things change graphically and algebraically.
(A simple example: Have a rectangle where the diagonal changes length… what gets affected? The sides, the angle between the diagonal and the sides of the rectangle, the area, the perimeter, etc. How do each of these things get affected as the diagonal changes?)