Tangents and Slopes

Using the function to learn about its derivative. 
In this post we will look at a way of helping students discover the numerical and graphical properties of the derivative and how they can be determined from the graph of the function. These ideas can be used very early, when you are first relating the function and its derivative. (In my next post we will look at the problem the other way around – using the derivative to find out about the function.)
Click on the graph below. This will take you to a graph I posted on the Desmos website (Desmos.com). This is a free and really easy to use grapher, which you and your students can use. If you sign up for your own account, you can make and save graphs for your class or use some of those that are built-in (click on the three horizontal bars at the upper left of the screen). Your students may do this as well. There are also Desmos apps for smart phones and tablets.

When you click on the graph a file called “function => derivative” should open. This is what you should see:
On the left is a list of equations. Those with a colored circle to its left are turned on; click the circle to toggle the graphs on and off. Here’s what they do:

  • f(x) is the equation of the function we will start with. Later you may change this to whatever function you are investigating. You will not have to change any of the others when you change the function. This one should be turned on.
  • g(x) is the derivative of f(x). Leave this turned off.
  • h(x) is a special function. The expression at the end, \frac{\sqrt{a-x}}{\sqrt{a-x}}, is what makes the slider work. This is a syntax trick and not part of the derivative. If x is to the right of a (i.e. x < a) the expression is equal to one and the derivative will graph. If x is to the right of a, (i.e. a < x) then the expression is undefined, and nothing will graph. Initially, turned off.
  • k(x) is the graph of a segment tangent to f at x = a. Click on the equation if you want to see how the segment is drawn by restricting the domain of x. Initially, turned on.
  • The next equation, x = a, is the equation of the dashed vertical line. This is included so that, later, we can see precisely how points on the graph are located above one another. Initially, turned off.
  • (a, f(a)) is the point of tangency. Initially, turned on.
  • The last box is the slider for the variable a. Its domain is shown at the ends. This may be changed by clicking on one end or clicking on the “gear” icon at the top of the list.

The icons at the top right of the graph let you zoom in and out or set the viewing window. You may click on the wrench icon and make other adjustments. “Projector Mode” makes the graph thicker and may help students see better when you project the graph.
Okay, you are now Desmos experts! Really, it’s that easy. The “?” at the top right has a few more instructions and you can download the user’s guide, a brief 13 pages.

Investigating the derivative
Do this before proving all the associated theorems. Let the class discover the relations between the graph of the function and its derivative. Prove them, or explain why they are so, later. You may want to spread all this over several days, perhaps dealing with where the function is increasing or decreasing and extreme values the first day and working with concavity the second.
1. Begin with just f(x), k(x), and the point (a, f(a)) turned on (click the circle to the left of the equation to toggle graphs on and off). Use the slider to move the tangent segment along the graph.
Draw the class’s attention to important things but let them formulate the observations in words. Ask your class a series of questions about what they see. Things like:

  • When the function is increasing, is the slope of the tangent segment positive or negative? When the function is decreasing, is the slope of the tangent segment positive or negative? Why?
  • What happens with the derivative when the function changes from increasing to decreasing or vice versa?
  • Notice that sometimes the tangent segment lies above the function and sometimes below. What does the function look like when the tangent is above (below)?
  • In the box for the slider delete the number and type a = 0; this moves the slider to the origin. Can you see what its slope is here? You can type in other numbers such as pi/6, or pi/2 and read the slope there. (If the slider disappears when you do this, type in a = 0 and it will come back.)
  • If you can project on a white board or are using a Smartboard, mark the points (a, slope at a) and see if you can graph the derivative.

2. Next turn on h(x) and x = a. Move the slider.

  • What are you seeing? As you move the slider the dashed vertical line moves to show you where you are. The graph of the derivative is drawn to the left of the dashed line.
  • Once again question the class about what they observe. Notice such things as on intervals where the function increases, the derivative is greater than or equal to zero, etc. Review all the things you discovered in part 1. Remember often students don’t associate things such as “the derivative is negative” with the “graph of the derivative lies below the x-axis.“
  • How does the concavity relate to the graph of the derivative?

3. Now change the starting function to something else.

  • First, just add a constant to f(x). If you really want to get fancy type f(x) = sin(x) + b. A slider for b will appear. Discuss why this transformation does not change the graph of the derivative one bit.
  • Some good examples are f(x) = cos(x), f(x) = x+2sin(x), a third- or fourth-degree polynomial (find a good example in your textbook and see below). Repeat all of steps 1 and 2 above.

Give the students a new function and see if they can sketch the (approximate) graph of the derivative themselves.

For further exploration click the graph below. This is similar to the first one; however, the function is a fourth degree polynomial with variable coefficients. Use the various sliders at the bottom to adjust the graph to an interesting shape. Make p = 0 to graph a cubic and make both p and q zero to graph a parabola. (This might make a good lesson in an advanced math or Algebra 2 class.)

A disclaimer: A function and its derivative should not be graphed on the same axes, because the two have different units. Nevertheless, I have done it here, and it is commonly done everywhere to compare the graphs of a function and its derivatives so that the important features of the two can be lined up and compared easily.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.