Monday, August 11, 2014

Section 1-6: The Need for Undefined Terms (Day 3)

Section 1-6 of the U of Chicago text is where the study of geometry formally begins. This section states that three important words in geometry -- point, line, and plane -- are undefined. This may seem strange, for mathematics is all about definitions, yet these three important concepts are undefined.

In college-level math, one learns that these undefined terms are called primitives, or primitive notions. Just over a hundred years ago, the German mathematician David Hilbert declared that there are in fact six primitive notions in geometry: point, line, plane, betweenness, lies on, and congruence. But most textbooks list only the first three as undefined terms. This is because texts actually define the last three using concepts from other branches of mathematics. "Lies on" or "containment" -- that is, what it means for, say, a line to contain a point -- is defined using set theory (which is why the very first sentence of this section states that a set is a collection of objects called elements). "Betweenness" of points -- that is, what it means for a point to be between two other points -- is defined later in this chapter in terms of betweenness for real numbers (their coordinates of course). And the definition of "congruence" is the cornerstone of Common Core Geometry -- we use reflections, rotations, and translations to define "congruence." So we're left with only three primitive notions -- points, lines, and planes.

Section 1-6 is a fairly light section. So point, line, and plane are undefined -- big deal! Of course, we can do things with points, lines, and planes, but that's not until 1-7. So instead, I use this as an opportunity to remind the students the reasons for taking a geometry course.

The students in a geometry course are around the age where thoughts such as "I hate math" become more and more common. This is the age where they wonder whether they'll ever have any use for the math that they're learning. They begin to wonder whether they'll ever use any math beyond what they learned in elementary school and wish that math classes were no longer required beyond elementary school, for can't they live very successful lives not knowing anything higher than fifth grade math?

As of today, a Google search for "I hate math" returns 365,000 results. And we can easily predict the most common reason for hating math -- of course it's because it's hard. We don't hate things that are easy -- we hate things that are hard. And the class that turns so many off from math is algebra. Indeed, if you choose some school and tell me only its standardized test scores in ELA and math, I can very reliably tell you whether it's an elementary or a secondary school. If the math score is higher, it's probably an elementary school -- if the ELA is higher, it's likely a secondary school. And so now we, as geometry teachers, have the students for the math course right after the one that caused them to hate math in the first place.

So why do we require students to take so much of a class they hate in order to graduate high school? As it turns out, we can answer this question from one of the sections that we've skipped, Section 1-1:

"A point is a dot."

And this section gives many examples of dots -- the pixels on a computer screen. The shapes that appear on our screens consists of dots, which can be modeled in geometry by points. We look at images on our TV screens all the time. And one of the most geometry-intensive computer programs that we have are video games -- we must create images consisting of dots that move rapidly.

The point of all this is that we can surely have math without entertainment, but we can't have entertainment -- at least not most modern forms of entertainment -- without math. We can only imagine how much technology would disappear if math were to disappear.

Elementary school math -- at least early elementary arithmetic (before the dreaded fractions) -- is easy. And college majors majoring in STEM know the importance of learning math. The problem is those in-between years in middle and high school. If math were merely an elective in secondary school, many students would avoid it and choose easier classes. Then there wouldn't be enough STEM majors in college because they wouldn't have had the necessary algebra background. The only way to bridge the gap between "math is easy" (early elementary) and "math is important" (college STEM majors) is to require the subject during the intervening middle and high school years. Otherwise we'd have no modern technology or entertainment.

When I give notes in class, I prefer the use of guided notes. This is not just because I think the students always need the extra guidance, but that I, the teacher, need the guidance. In the middle of a lesson, I often forget what to teach, or forget how to explain it, unless I have guided notes in front of me.

And so today's images consist of guided notes. I begin with Section 1-6 and its definitions. Here I emphasize the fact that point, line, and plane are undefined by leaving spaces for the students to write in their definitions -- which they are to leave blank (or just write "undefined")! Notice that Section 1-6 distinguishes between plane geometry and solid geometry -- a crucial distinction in Common Core Geometry because the reflections, rotations, etc., that we discuss are transformations of the plane.

Then I move on to Section 1-1. This is based on an online discussion I had a few years ago on why students should learn math. I also include it as guided notes so that the students are listening when the teacher gives the reasons that they are taking this course. (The answers to the blanks beginning with the conversation are MBA, polynomial, investing, data, supermarket, and -- the object Americans use that has more computing power than the A-bomb -- cell phone!)

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