Kids Talk Radio Engineering Conversations About Precalculus and Calculus

Calculus is the most feared subject in any curriculum. Why are so many students afraid of calculus?

What is calculus?

Calculus (Latin, calculus, a small stone used for counting) is a branch of mathematics focused on limits, functions, derivatives, integrals, and infinite series. This subject constitutes a major part of modern mathematics education. It has two major branches, differential calculus and integral calculus, which are related by the fundamental theorem of calculus. Calculus is the study of change,[1] in the same way that geometry is the study of shape and algebra is the study of operations and their application to solving equations. A course in calculus is a gateway to other, more advanced courses in mathematics devoted to the study of functions and limits, broadly called mathematical analysis. Calculus has widespread applications in science, economics, and engineering and can solve many problems for which algebra alone is insufficient.

Historically, calculus was called “the calculus of infinitesimals”, or “infinitesimal calculus”. More generally, calculus (plural calculi) refers to any method or system of calculation guided by the symbolic manipulation of expressions. Some examples of other well-known calculi are propositional calculus, variational calculus, lambda calculus, pi calculus, and join calculus.

While some of the ideas of calculus had been developed earlier in Egypt, Greece, China, India, Iraq, Persia, and Japan, the modern use of calculus began in Europe, during the 17th century, when Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz built on the work of earlier mathematicians to introduce its basic principles. The development of calculus was built on earlier concepts of instantaneous motion and area underneath curves.

Applications of differential calculus include computations involving velocity and acceleration, the slope of a curve, and optimization. Applications of integral calculus include computations involving area, volume, arc length, center of mass, work, and pressure. More advanced applications include power series and Fourier series.

Calculus is also used to gain a more precise understanding of the nature of space, time, and motion. For centuries, mathematicians and philosophers wrestled with paradoxes involving division by zero or sums of infinitely many numbers. These questions arise in the study of motion and area. The ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea gave several famous examples of such paradoxes. Calculus provides tools, especially the limit and the infinite series, which resolve the paradoxes.

Calculus Applications

The logarithmic spiral of the Nautilus shell is a classical image used to depict the growth and change related to calculus

Calculus is used in every branch of the physical sciences, actuarial science, computer science, statistics, engineering, economics, business, medicine, demography, and in other fields wherever a problem can be mathematically modeled and an optimal solution is desired. It allows one to go from (non-constant) rates of change to the total change or vice versa, and many times in studying a problem we know one and are trying to find the other.

Physics makes particular use of calculus; all concepts in classical mechanics and electromagnetism are interrelated through calculus. The mass of an object of known density, the moment of inertia of objects, as well as the total energy of an object within a conservative field can be found by the use of calculus. An example of the use of calculus in mechanics is Newton’s second law of motion: historically stated it expressly uses the term “rate of change” which refers to the derivative saying The rate of change of momentum of a body is equal to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction. Commonly expressed today as Force = Mass × acceleration, it involves differential calculus because acceleration is the time derivative of velocity or second time derivative of trajectory or spatial position. Starting from knowing how an object is accelerating, we use calculus to derive its path.

Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Einstein’s theory of general relativity are also expressed in the language of differential calculus. Chemistry also uses calculus in determining reaction rates and radioactive decay. In biology, population dynamics starts with reproduction and death rates to model population changes.

Calculus can be used in conjunction with other mathematical disciplines. For example, it can be used with linear algebra to find the “best fit” linear approximation for a set of points in a domain. Or it can be used in probability theory to determine the probability of a continuous random variable from an assumed density function. In analytic geometry, the study of graphs of functions, calculus is used to find high points and low points (maxima and minima), slope, concavity and inflection points.

Green’s Theorem, which gives the relationship between a line integral around a simple closed curve C and a double integral over the plane region D bounded by C, is applied in an instrument known as a planimeter which is used to calculate the area of a flat surface on a drawing. For example, it can be used to calculate the amount of area taken up by an irregularly shaped flower bed or swimming pool when designing the layout of a piece of property.

Discrete Green’s Theorem, which gives the relationship between a double integral of a function around a simple closed rectangular curve C and a linear combination of the antiderivative’s values at corner points along the edge of the curve, allows fast calculation of sums of values in rectangular domains. For example, it can be used to efficiently calculate sums of rectangular domains in images, in order to rapidly extract features and detect object – see also the summed area table algorithm.

In the realm of medicine, calculus can be used to find the optimal branching angle of a blood vessel so as to maximize flow. From the decay laws for a particular drug’s elimination from the body, it’s used to derive dosing laws. In nuclear medicine, it’s used to build models of radiation transport in targeted tumor therapies.

In economics, calculus allows for the determination of maximal profit by providing a way to easily calculate both marginal cost and marginal revenue.

Calculus is also used to find approximate solutions to equations; in practice it’s the standard way to solve differential equations and do root finding in most applications. Examples are methods such as Newton’s method, fixed point iteration, and linear approximation. For instance, spacecraft use a variation of the Euler method to approximate curved courses within zero gravity environments.

My job is to get students to stop fearing calculus and to start using it to solve problems in the real world. The real world for us is our uninhabited island of Santa Luzia, Cape Verde. It is a fact that you cannot survive in any college engineering program without calculus at your fingertips. Some departments require one calculus course and others can require up to four calculus classes.

Some comments about our Precalculus textbook:

If your team is looking for projects for the Cabo Verde Tenth Island Project consider items from the list below.

Our high school students are reading PRECALCULUS: Enhanced with Graphing Utilities, 5e by Michael Sullivan (Chicago State University) & Michael Sullivan, III. (Joliet Junior College) This book has a list of real world applications that we are using on the Cabo Verde Tenth Island Project. Some of the applications addressed below would make for interesting Kids Talk Radio STEM conversations with great examples of using calculus in the world of work. All of the following topics are being integrated into the Cabo Verde Tenth Island Project:

• Agriculture

• Air travel

• Architecture

• Area Geometry

• Aviation

• Biology

• Business

• Carpentry

• Chemistry

• Combinatorics

• Communication

• Design

• Distance

• Economics

• Electronics

• Finance

• Food and nutrition

• Games

• Geography

• Geology

• Geometry

• Government

• Health & Medicine (Jr. Medical School Projects)

• Investments

• Navigation

• Oceanography

• Physics

• Seismology

• Surveying

• Temperature

• Transportation

• Weather

We are looking for students and adults that have creative ways to teach calculus to our group of international student backpack scientists.

Please help us to continue these conversations about calculus.