Determinants, for a teacher if I may borrow a British phrase, they are a bit of a sticky wicket. For my teaching, determinants have the qualities that I find makes a topic uninviting for students:
➢ The rules for manually calculating determinants seem arbitrary, and are nearly impossible to motivate.
➢ It is not clear what the determinant means. By which I mean it is not clear what “natural” meaning might be given to a the value of a determinant, in much the same way that slope can be imbued with the natural meaning of “rate of change”.
But determinants are also tempting:
➢ Cramer’s rule presents a powerful way to solve systems of equations
➢ Matrices are a vast generalization of number systems that have far reaching applications. Can we use determinants as a way to motivate the study of these objects?
When teaching we need motivations
The first question I ask about a topic, is what might lead someone to want to know this? Why have “slope” or a “determinant”. For motivation, slope benefits from the universality of change. A recurrent theme in mathematics education from algebra to calculus is the wide range of applications of the slope concept to measure change.
Each child must see the motivation in mathematics
History of math as a motivation
What can we use to motivate determinants? Often when I find myself struggling to motivate something I will study the historical motivations of a topic. For instance, the rules of probability are often well motivated by the story of the way Fermat and Pascal were lead to discuss a game that motivated many questions about probability.
The determinant’s history may not be as storied. It begins to late in the history of mathematics to have a wonderful story attached. Professional mathematicians, not interested lay practitioners brought it forth.
Connections/Generalizations of previous curriculum
To be a topic worthy of our student’s interest it must be made to represent something meaningful in their lives, in their experience, or in the larger life of the mind. Can we at least show that a curious soul would want to see what this is all about? We can only do this if the determinant can tell us something that our students find real. Rules that utilize determinants in part, such as Cramer’s rule, are inadequate for this job because the determinant is only part of the equation. Why not make the whole thing one giant new equation? We need to start with unadorned determinants to begin with.
In the rest of this article I will try to make the leap. I will try to motivate determinants and demystify them, and I will indicate some more uses for them. The more we understand about the determinants the more our students will understand them and find even more remarkable ways to use them.
Volume and Area
Volume and Area do provide a very concrete motivation. It is clear to a student that measuring the size of objects is a fundamental question of existence. There are two formulas for area that I would like to focus on. These are the standard the equations for the area of a parallelogram and the area of a triangle.
The inadequacies of some formulas for some area
These formulas are absolutely correct and deeply flawed. The major drawback of these formulas is that they rely on a length that is not truly “part” of the shape. The height measurement would in reality be a difficult measurement to determine. How is it possible to determine that we are really are measuring an altitude?
Determinants provide another method to find area. In this version we must assume that the vertices have been given coordinates. Then it is possible to find vectors that represent the sides. These vectors not only encapsulate the length of the side but also the direction. It is therefore possible to find the area of a parallelogram or triangle from these measurements.
For instance, take the parallelogram shown below.
In this case we can compute the vector from A to B is <> and from A to D is <>. Using these vectors we can compute the determinant and from that the area.
Because we are interested in computing with vectors we can in general imagine that one of the corners of the parallelogram is at the origin. This gives us a figure like the one below.
We can then compute the area of the parallelogram by finding the area of the rectangle and then subtracting the area of the green trapezoids and orange triangles.
This shows that the area of the parallelogram can be computed from the vectors that define the parallelogram. Because triangles are half the size of a parallelogram we can compute the area of triangles similarly.
This analysis can be extended to parallelepiped in three dimensions.
Next, we look at applying the determinant to problems involving proportions.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008