Taxicab Geometry – A Brief Exploration

We are officially on spring break here at my school and we end the term with a week of what are called test priority days. The idea from the school’s end is that we want to protect students from having says with three (or more) major assessments as the winter term comes to a close. With a two – week break most teachers try to put a little bow on their material before taking off so as not to simply start off again on March 14 repeating a week’s worth of material. However, this leads to some awkward scheduling. My last test priority day was Monday and I met classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I sent out a call for ideas on twitter (like you do, right?) and I received a handful of great suggestions. From a conversation with Henri Picciotto (@hpicciotto) and Becca Phillips (@RPhillipsMath) I decided to spend a few days with Geometry AND with Discrete Math on an intro to taxicab geometry. Henri shared a great link to one of his pages (I encourage you to download that file from Henri – the relevant ones for this discussion are labs 8.4 – 9.1) and I modified some of those ideas and created two handouts of my own (here is #1 and here is #2)

I want to take a moment here to reflect on how our two and a half days with this unit went. We worked Tuesday and Wednesday in each class and wrapped up our conversations before tackling the cool problem I wrote about here to finish our time together on Thursday. First, I want to comment on my documents and how I intend to tweak them before using them again. Then I will comment on the class action these days.

Handout #1 – First change I would make is that point B would be the point (5,4) instead of (4,5). I do not know if any student caught this, but when I imposed the map of Gainesville, FL on the situation I described, Anne is not at the point (4,5). This tweak would solely be for my comfort. I do know that students in all three periods had trouble deciding whether street location should be an x coordinate or a y coordinate. It should have been an easy decision, I think. I like the introduction of the Manhattan map as a way to discuss what a city block might mean, but I did too much talking this first day. I need to introduce the idea then get out of the way and let the students ask these questions. I also should change some of the coordinates I suggested. My students really wanted these points on the section of the grid I provided. I should probably adjust for that. Finally, I have to admit that I am pleased with the questions I asked here. I think that there is a pretty nice balance of practice, of comparing taxicab and Cartesian distances, and of asking some nice guiding questions. By the end of the day Tuesday I felt that my students were in a pretty good place.

Handout #2 – I like that I start off with the same image and the same text to reframe the conversation. I think I will take away the text here that defines a circle and make sure that this definition arises from conversation – either whole class or in small groups. I love the sense of discovery that emerges as the students begin to realize what a taxicab circle will look like. I had GeoGebra fired up on the projector and started taking ordered pair suggestions so we saw the shape emerge together. I am happy again with my questions here even though I am unsure of whether there is actually a clear formula for the number of lattice points inside the border of a Cartesian circle. We did stumble upon a formula for the lattice points inside a taxicab circle and it was pretty darned exciting to see this unfold. Since this was the last night of class work I had very little evidence that any of my students had entertained this question on their own. We had a nice enough conversation about it in class, but it would have clearly been more energetic if there had been some reflection on their own by any of my scholars.

My Geometry students seemed more engaged and interested in how the ideas unfolded in this exploration. Perhaps this is due to its clearer relationship to our ‘normal’ material for the course. My Discrete kiddos were willing to have these discussions, but they were clearly less excited/annoyed/engaged/frustrated/surprised by the discovery of the fact that circles are now squares. I felt pretty committed to the idea that we should agree on whether we wanted to limit ourselves to only considering lattice points when deciding about the nature of the taxicab circle. I had been rooting for a loosening of the idea of points here so that we would have a continuous boundary in the taxicab world as we do in our Cartesian world. Since I had so clearly framed the conversation the day before in terms of city streets and avenues almost all of my students wanted to stay with that restriction and they voted clearly to restrict to lattice points. There have been a few other places where the Geometry students were asked to agree on definitions. We agreed that a trapezoid should have only one pair of parallel sides and we agreed that kites should not have four congruent sides, they should have two pairs of congruent sides that were not congruent to the other pair. There is a clear pattern of wanting to agree to more restrictive definitions here. I have discussed this with one of my Geometry teammates and he seems a bit bothered by my willingness to allow these restrictive definitions. I understand his point about definitions later on in math, but I feel pretty committed to letting the students come to these agreements together at this level. I hope I am not undermining their future as mathematicians here. I like the placement of this material in a short, unconnected time span on our calendar. We could have this conversation at a number of times in the year and I want to keep this in my back pocket to uncover when time allows/demands a unit such as this one. I think that the fact that the students knew that this would not be part of an immediate assessment allowed them to relax a bit and just play with some of these ideas. I also think that this fed into the near complete lack of work done on finishing the questions I presented after class discussion time. I think I am willing to accept this limitation as long as the benefit of relaxation comes along with it.

I want to thank Henri and Becca for helping push me into this and I want to thank my teammate Mary who was willing to dive in and try this unit as well. My other two teammates tried some different ideas and I want to pick their brains to see how life went in their classes for these three odd days. I also want to say that I am fairly happy to have a bit of a break now and I hope to return to school on March 14 with at least a couple of weeks planned out carefully for both the Geometry and Discrete Math classes.