Yesterday I introduce radians to my students for the first time. I started out by asking why they thought a circle had 360°. There were a few good answers – four right angles makes a circle, so 4*90 is 360; a degree is some object they measured in ancient Greece, and so a circle was made of 360 of them; something to do with the number of days in the year. All good answered, but I told them it was completely arbitrary based on the Babylonian number system.
Once we decided that it was arbitrary, I asked them to come up with their own method of measuring a circle. I would classify their responses into three categories
- Divide the circle up into 200 “degrees” (most common)
- Divide the circle up into 100 “degrees”
- Divide the circle up into 2 “degrees” (least common)
I was expecting 100 “degrees” to be the most common, so I was very surprised to see that most of the students want to split the circle into two sections, each with 100 parts.
I have been a proponent of tau for a while, as I thought it was natural to think of radians as pieces of a whole circle, but my students were clearly thinking of the circle as two semicircles right off the bat.
I pushed the students who came up with the third way in a whole class discussion. If this whole semicircle is one student-name-degree, what would you call this section? And so we got to using fractions of those degrees.
That made a pretty easy transition into radians. I went a little into the history; instead of using a degree, some mathematicians decided to use names based on the arc length – and so that semicircle’s angle was 1 π radians, instead of 1 student-name-degree. And the fractions we used were the same.
This almost made me doubt my tau ways – maybe π was more natural. But then, as we started converting angles from degrees to radians, some students kept complaining that, for example, 90° was 1/2 π instead of 1/4, since it was clearly a quarter-circle – so maybe I can stay a tau-ist.