Discovering the Derivative

Discovering the Derivative with a Graphing Calculator

This is an outline of how to introduce the idea that the slope of the line tangent to a graph can be found, or at least approximated, by finding the slope of a line through two very close points in the graph.  It is a set of graphing calculator activities that will use graphs and numbers to lead to the symbolic form of the derivative.

You may work through the activities with your class (which is what I would do) or you could write and distribute them and let your class do them a laboratory exercise. Before starting students should know how to use their calculator to graph, to trace to points on the graph, and how to save and recall the coordinates from the graph to variables on the home screen using the graphing calculator’s store feature.

I suggest you work through these three times (or more) using different functions. I will work with y={{x}^{2}}. A good second example is y={{x}^{3}}, and a third example to use is y=\sin \left( x \right). Use simple functions, because you will want the students to see the answers without too much trouble.The procedure is the same for all.

Part 1:

  1. Begin by asking students to entery={{x}^{2}} in their calculator asY1 and graph it in a standard, square window. (Do not use the decimal window as “nice” decimals are not necessary or helpful.)

    GC Derivative 1

    Figure 1

  2. Next, have them trace over to different points on the graph (some should go left and others to the right); they should all end up at different points. Then have them zoom-in 6 or 8 times until the graph looks linear. (This is local linearity – functions that are differentiable are locally linear.)
  3. Then push TRACE to be sure the cursor is on the graph. The coordinates of the point are on the bottom of the screen. Go to the HOME screen and save the two values as a and b. Think of this first point as (a, b).
  4. Return to the graph screen and push TRACE. This should return the cursor to the first point. (If not, close is okay.) Then click to the right or to left once, or twice at most, to move to a nearby point on the graph. Return to the home screen and save the new values to c and d for the second point (c, d).
  5. On the home screen use a, b, c, and d to write the slope of the line through the two points. See figure 1. (Go around the room as they are doing this and make sure students are getting this – their slope should be approximately twice a or c.)
  6. Return to the equation screen and enter the equation of the line through the two points asY2. (See figure 2). Graph this equation with the parabola.

    Figure 2

    Figure 2

  7. Have the students record their values of a, b, c, d and m on paper (three decimal places will be enough) and also write a description of what they see on the graph and why they think this is so. (This is in case they lose the numbers on their calculator when they do another graph and also because you will need them later in the next part of the exploration.)

Repeat the same steps separately with the other two functions and record the results in the same way. Write their numbers and observations. Discuss the observations with the class.

  • Of course, the lines should look tangent to the graphs, but since they contain two points of the graph, they cannot actually be tangent.
  • Discuss how a line can be tangent to a graph. How is this different from a tangent to a circle?
  • Ask what could be done to make their line even closer to being tangent. (Use points closer together.)

Part 2:

Now you have homework to do. Collect the student’s data and combine it into a list with columns for a, c, and m. The points do not have to be in order. Leave any “wrong” points for discussion; if there are none, you might want to make one up and include it. Do this for each of the three sets of data. Make a copy for each student. Enter the numbers for a and m as lists in your emulator and make a dot-plot of the points (a, m) = (a, slope at x = a).

  1. Return the lists of points to the students and ask them to study the list and see if they can see any obvious relationship between the numbers on each line. Answers for y = x2 should be the m is approximately twice either a or c; or maybe some will see that m is approximately a + c. Answers for y = x3 will be less obvious (three times the square of a). Answers for y = sin(x) will not be obvious at all.
  2. Using the emulator, separately for each of the three sets of data, make a dot-plot of the numbers (use a square window). Ask the student to discuss what they see. See if they can find an equation of the graph of the dot-plots. Now the equation of the data set for sin(x) should be obvious. Plot their guesses on top of the points and see how close they come.

Part 3:

Now guide the class through the symbolic explanation of what they did. Ask them to explain and write in symbols specifically what they did. The idea here is for you, the teacher, to ask lots of leading questions until the class decides on the best answer.

  1. Call the first point (a, f(a)). Let h = “a little bit.” then the second is the point (a plus a little bit, f(a plus a little bit)) or (a + h, f(a + h)). Recall that h may have been negative for some students so the second point may actually be to the left of the first. Then help them come up with

\displaystyle m\approx \frac{f\left( a+h \right)-f\left( a \right)}{\left( a+h \right)-a}=\frac{f\left( a+h \right)-f\left( a \right)}{h}

Or they may prefer

\displaystyle m\approx \frac{f\left( a \right)-f\left( c \right)}{a-c}

  1. Ask how this could be made “less approximate” and more actually equal. (Answer: smaller and smaller value of h.) Ask them to find the value of h = ac for their points. How small are they? How can you make them really small? (Find a limit.)
  2. Notice that h cannot be zero in these expressions. Keep hinting until someone comes up with the idea of finding

\displaystyle \underset{h\to 0}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{f\left( a+h \right)-f\left( a \right)}{h}  or  \displaystyle \underset{a\to c}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{f\left( a \right)-f\left( c \right)}{a-c}

  1. Next have the students calculate the limits below by actually doing the algebra. (They will not be able to handle the sin(x) at this point so save that for later.)

\displaystyle \underset{h\to 0}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{{{\left( x+h \right)}^{2}}-{{\left( x \right)}^{2}}}{h}\text{ and }\underset{h\to 0}{\mathop{\lim }}\,\frac{{{\left( x+h \right)}^{3}}-{{\left( x \right)}^{3}}}{h}

  1. Compare the answers here with the earlier work and guesses, and discuss.

… And now you are ready to define the limits as the ’(a) derivative of f at x = a.



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