So in Geometry today we began to study the ‘special’ right triangles and I had an idea last night that I wanted to try. I handed each of my students two pieces of paper, a ruler, and a protractor. On the first page I asked them to draw an isosceles right triangle on each side and asked them to have the legs of their triangles be different lengths. I polled the students and had them tell me one of their leg lengths. I then asked them to find the length of the hypotenuse and tell me what number they get when dividing the hypotenuse by the leg length. I, of course, got a variety of answers all of which hovered around 1.4. Some students used the Pythagorean theorem and gave me decimal approximations. Some used the Pythagorean theorem and gave me radical answers. Some measured the hypotenuse with their rulers. I asked them why these answers seemed so close to each other – I specifically avoided the word similar here. Luckily, one of my students told me that all the isosceles right triangles were similar to each other. I pushed back a bit and asked what that had to do with ratios within one triangle. We usually discuss similarity ratios between triangles. The explanations from the students were not as concise as I hoped but we all seemed comfortable that rations within a triangle will be the same when looking at two triangles (or in this case 12) that are similar to each other. Since a few students used radicals we had the exact ratio in front of us and a quick solution using algebra confirmed that the ratio was the square root of 2. Success!
Next up I asked them to draw two equilateral triangles and construct an altitude. Now I asked for the ratio between the altitude and a side length. These answers all hovered around 0.87. We were running out of time now so I did a little more telling than I wanted to but we saw the ratio for the three sides of this new right triangle were 1 : square root of 3 : 2
I have to say I was pleased with their persistence, with their measuring/equation solving, and with the idea that we could see these ratios without simply giving them formulas to try and remember. I may be an incurable optimist, but it feels to me that these ratios will be easier to remember at this point. Now I need to have the discipline to avoid using the words for the trig ratios for at least a few days. I am going to steal ideas from Kate Nowak (here is her trig blog post) and Jennifer Wilson (you can find her trig wisdom here) as I attempt to shepherd my Geometry students through the tangle of right triangle trig. I feel that we had a good start today!