Wanted Parabola

As much as I love mathematical modelling, so much of Math 10 to 12 is contextless stuff like this:

Determine an equation of a quadratic function with vertex at (-5, 3), passing through the point (-7, 15).

Lately I’ve been looking for activities that address this sort of naked math yet engage learners in processes similar to those in a mathematical modelling cycle.

Consider the exercise above. What questions could you ask? If I were to ask a student about their equation, I’m likely to hear play-by-play, not colour commentary: “… and then I plugged -7 and 15 in y = a(x + 5)² + 3. Negative seven plus five is two…”

Instead, I could have students try to figure out a quadratic function that satisfies a set of criteria, gradually revealed to them as “clues.” Throughout, students would check their quadratic functions and make changes when necessary. This is the gist of Wanted Parabola, my adaptation of Cathy Marks Krpan’s Wanted Number:

I started with a very general clue: the direction of opening. I anticipated a variety of parabolas, which I got when I tried this activity out with math teachers in my district. When I tried this activity out in the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (#MTBoS), I got a bunch of y = x²s. The biggest difference was that my colleagues were invited to draw a parabola (on whiteboards) whereas my tweeps were asked to write an equation (in a Desmos activity). It’s interesting to think about this activity in terms of freedom and constraints. When I revealed the next clue, it pushed my colleagues’ thinking together. However, from my tweeps, it triggered new and diverse ideas, simulated here:

I like this as a blank-page (or whiteboard) activity but a Desmos activity (1, 2, 3) does provide the opportunity to talk about some interesting overlays. If using vertical non-permanent surfaces (#VNPS), I’d stop partway through to hold a “board meeting” where students would share possible parabolas.

In general, I progressed from providing more general to more specific clues. For example, “vertex in QII” divulges p < 0 before “axis of symmetry x = -5″ gives away p = -5. Most clues add new information and move students closer to the Wanted Parabola. Some confirm earlier decisions. For example, “vertex (-5, 3)” before “axis of symmetry x = -5″ and “minimum value of 3.” This last clue is anticlimactic. An earlier clue, “never enters QIII,” is much more interesting. It might feel like new information. But it must be true given preceding clues; a parabola that opens up and has no x-intercepts cannot contain points in QIII (or QIV).

You can play with the order of the clues. A second Wanted Parabola:

Here, the direction of opening clue is revealed midway through the set. It doesn’t add new information but is reasoned to through “two x-intercepts” and “vertex in QI.” I meant to delay students determining the direction of opening a bit, hoping to surprise them after a few clues. In a third Wanted Parabola, “passes through” is the first clue; I anticipate that some students will place the vertex at this point.

Instead of “How did you find a?” you could ask “Which clues were helpful? Which clues were necessary?” In my mind, helpful ≠ necessary. A clue might be helpful if it pushes students in the direction of the Wanted Parabola despite not providing the values of a, p, or q. Or a clue might be helpful if it tells students that they’re on the right track. In the way that the first Wanted Parabola plays out, three pieces of information are necessary (to determine three unknowns): “minimum value of 3,” “axis of symmetry x = -5,” and “passes through (-7, 15).” If some students don’t argue that only two clues are necessary — “vertex (-5, 3)” and “passes through (-7, 15)” — you could ask “What is the fewest number of clues you need?”

This activity helps students develop an understanding of the different attributes parabolas can have. It provides an opportunity for students to solve problems, reason, explain, justify, and connect mathematical ideas in ways that “Determine an equation…” does not.

Wanted Parabola (.pptx) (.pdf)


Marks Krpan, Cathy (2013). Math expressions: developing student thinking and problem solving through communication. Toronto, ON: Pearson Canada.


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