Saturday, January 16, 2016

My Favorite Course (to teach): Calculus

Why is calculus my favorite? Let me count the ways ...
  1. It tells a story.
  2. It has cool historical connections,
  3. ... and great connections to science.
  4. It's a good time to help students start to see what proof means.
  5. I keep learning more.

Calculus Tells a Story...
...if we let it. And the conventional textbooks don't. So I used two different creative commons texts (Boelkins and Hoffman), some of my own materials, and a few things from some of my favorite bloggers, and I made a coursepack to use for the first three weeks. I gave a talk about it at the Joint Mathematics Meeting a week ago. As part of my preparation for that, I made a new blog page. Click 'calculus' above, and you'll see all of my materials, including the slides from my talk, links to the creative commons texts I used, and lots more.

What stories does calculus tell? It takes one of the central concepts from algebra, that of slope, and twists it so it will work for curves. To do that, we need to consider two points that are "infinitely close together," whatever that means. So we have to delve into the weirdness of "infinitely close." Once we get good at all that, we can find out where things reach their maximum and minimum values, and use that to graph all sorts of curves. We also use that to optimize, to get the most volume with the least surface area (when building boxes), for instance. And then we play with finding areas of strange shapes, and how that's connected to slopes.

Calculus has cool historical connections, and great connections to science.
Archimedes figured out all sorts of things that are really a part of calculus (call it proto-calculus), and used the 'method of exhaustion' which is a foundation for what we now do with limits. Newton and Leibniz are credited with inventing calculus, even though lots of what we do in Calculus I had already been figured out. The main thing they discovered was what we call the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, which says that areas and rates of change are inverse functions. It makes sense that two different people invented calculus because it was needed at the time for the science questions that were being considered: lenses and light, paths of planets, gravity, angle to shoot a cannon, volume of the Earth. And then it took 150 years to get that limit thing just right, and another 150 years (in 1960 Abraham Robinson invented non-standard analysis) to prove that Newton's original conception (of fluxions) wasn't so far off.

It's a good time to help students start to see what proof means.
Did you realize that the two 'formulas' we all know for circles are very different sorts of creatures?  The first, C=2*pi*r, is really just a restatement of a definition. pi is defined to be C(ircumference) over D(iameter), so it takes 2 or 3 algebraic steps to get to C=2*pi*r. But the other, A = pi*r2, should be proved. The simplest almost-proof comes from cutting the circle up and rearranging it.

I keep learning more.
I learned two cool things while preparing for that talk: Newton had a clearer conception of limits than we usually think,  and Archimedes' calculation of an approximation for pi was easier to follow than I would have imagined, and really simple and beautiful (in our modern notation).

And to make this post a fun one for all you MTBOS folks, here's the worksheet I designed to share with my calculus class (.doc and .pdf), leading them through Archimedes' first few steps as he worked toward the 96-gon to approximate pi. Go ahead, try it and put your answer for the 96-gon in the comments. (I couldn't find it anywhere else online!)

*(There's a better way to show word docs, right? Someone tell me. I should know that after all these years of blogging!)


  1. I love teaching calculus too. So many uses and you are right about the interesting history of it.

  2. My single favorite paragraph from Howard Eves' 2-volume Great Moments in Mathematics (Lecture 23):

    "Surely no subject in early college mathematics is more exciting or more fun to teach than the calculus. It is like being the ringmaster of a great three-ring circus. It has been said that one can recognize the students on a college campus who have studied the calculus -- they are the students with no eyebrows. In utter astonishment at the incredible applicability of the subject, the eyebrows of the calculus students have receded higher and higher and finally vanished over the backs of their heads."


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