Speed is the absolute value of velocity: speed = \left| v\left( t \right) \right| .

This is the definition of speed, but hardly enough to be sure students know about speed and its relationship to velocity and acceleration.

Velocity is a vector quantity; that is, it has both a direction and a magnitude. The magnitude of velocity vector is the speed. Speed is a non-negative number and has no direction associated with it. Velocity has a magnitude and a direction. Speed has the same value and units as velocity; speed is a number. 

The question that seems to trouble students the most is to determine whether the speed is increasing or decreasing. The short answer is

Speed is increasing when the velocity and acceleration have the same sign.

Speed is decreasing when the velocity and acceleration have different signs.

You should demonstrate this in some real context, such as driving a car (see below). Also, you can explain it graphically.

The figure below shows the graph of the velocity v\left( t \right) (blue graph) of a particle moving on the interval 0\le t\le f. The red graph is \left| v\left( t \right) \right|, the speed. The sections where v\left( t \right)<0 are reflected over the x-axis. (The graphs overlap on [b, d].) It is now quite east to see that the speed is increasing on the intervals [0,a], [b, c] and [d,e].

Another way of approaching the concept is this: the speed is the non-directed length of the vertical segment from the velocity’s graph to the t-axis. Picture the segment shown moving across the graph. When it is getting longer (either above or below the t-axis) the speed increases.

Thinking of the speed as the non-directed distance from the velocity to the axis makes answering the two questions below easy:

    1. What are the values of t at which the speed obtains its (local) maximum values? Answer: x = a, c, and e. 
    2. When do the minimum speeds occur?  What are they? Answer: the speed is zero at b and d

Students often benefit from a verbal explanation of all this. Picture a car moving along a road going forwards (in the positive direction) its velocity is positive.

  • If you step on the gas, acceleration pulls you in the direction you are moving and your speed increases. (v > 0, a > 0, speed increases)
  • Going too fast is not good, so you put on your brakes, you now accelerate in the opposite direction (decelerate?), but you are still moving forward, but slower. (v > 0, a < 0, speed decreases)
  • Finally, you stop. Then you shift into reverse and start moving backwards (negative velocity) and you push on the gas to accelerate in the negative direction, so your speed increases. (v < 0, a < 0, speed increases)
  • Then you put on the breaks (accelerate in the positive direction) and your speed decreases again. (v < 0, a > 0, speed decreases)

Here is an activity that will help your students discover this relationship. Give Part 1 to half the class and Part 2 to the other half. Part 3 (on the back of Part 1 and Part 2) is the same for both groups.  – Added 12-19-17

Also see: A Note on Speed for the purely analytic approach.

Update: “A Note on Speed” added 4-21-2018

Motion Problems: Same Thing, Different Context

Calculus is about things that are changing. Certainly, things that move are changing, changing their position, velocity and acceleration. Most calculus textbooks deal with things being dropped or thrown up into the air. This is called uniformly accelerated motion since the acceleration is due to gravity and is constant. While this is a good place to start, the problems are by their nature, somewhat limited. Students often know all about uniformly accelerated motion from their physics class.

The Advanced Placement exams take motion problems to a new level. AB students often encounter particles moving along the x-axis or the y-axis (i.e. on a number line) according to some function that gives the particle’s position, velocity or acceleration.  BC students often encounter particles moving around the plane with their coordinates given by parametric equations or its velocity given by a vector. Other times the information is given as a graph or even in a table of the position or velocity. The “particle” may become a car, or a rocket or even chief readers riding bicycles.

While these situations may not be all that “real”, they provide excellent ways to ask both differentiation and integration questions. but be aware that they are not covered that much in some textbooks; supplementing the text may be necessary.

The main derivative ideas are that velocity is the first derivative of the position function, acceleration is the second derivative of the position function and the first derivative of the velocity. Speed is the absolute value of velocity. (There will be more about speed in the next post.) The same techniques used to find the features of a graph can be applied to motion problems to determine things about the moving particle.

So the ideas are not new, but the vocabulary is. The table below gives the terms used with graph analysis and the corresponding terms used in motion problem.

Vocabulary: Working with motion equations (position, velocity, acceleration) you really do all the same things as with regular functions and their derivatives. Help students see that while the vocabulary is different, the concepts are the same.

Function                                Linear Motion
Value of a function at x               position at time t
First derivative                            velocity
Second derivative                       acceleration
Increasing                                   moving to the right or up
Decreasing                                 moving to the left or down
Absolute Maximum                    farthest right
Absolute Minimum                     farthest left
yʹ = 0                                         “at rest”
yʹ changes sign                          object changes direction
Increasing & cc up                     speed is increasing
Increasing & cc down                speed is decreasing
Decreasing & cc up                   speed is decreasing
Decreasing & cc down              speed is increasing
Speed                                       absolute value of velocity