Integration: When “u-Substitution” Fails

Posted: March 10, 2016 in Calculus: An Introduction, Integral Calculus, Trigonometric Substitution
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As mentioned earlier, my students’ first exposure to calculus is from the “Leibniz” perspective. Introducing integration in the first two weeks opens the door to the exploration of many interesting scenarios, including separable differential equations. These lead very nicely to discussions on rates of change,  providing a seamless segue into the land of differential calculus and derivatives.

After students have a firm hold on the concept of differential calculus, I like to shake things up once in a while by throwing in some integration problems. The subject of this entry, shown below, is one such problem. Students are asked to determine the area bounded by the function  f(x)=4/(1+x^2) and the x-axis from  x=0  to  x=1. When the result emerges, students are highly motivated to understand what’s going on. A great discussion ensues and a plan of attack is formulated; this first attempt is a good one but it eventually ends in a stalemate as illustrated below.


Why u-substitution fails

Pi Estimate Natural Log Attempt


Allowing students to travel down the wrong path often leads to greater learning than might otherwise occur; the example above is no exception. Learning various methods of integration is one thing, but knowing when to employ one approach over another is very empowering as well.

The impasse that was reached above provides motivation to seek out another approach; enter trigonometric substitution. This is a very powerful tool in the arsenal once students learn to recognize the circumstances in which it can be used. It is demonstrated below and leads to the conclusion of this problem.


Trigonometric Substitution

Pi Estimate Trig Sub

Other examples of trigonometric substitution can be seen in calculating  circumference  and area of the circle.

Later on this semester, students will be challenged to determined the arc length on the function  f(x)=x^2  over a given interval; trigonometric substitution will once again be deployed. This time, however, the solution will not be determined so easily. The roadblock in this scenario will lead to even greater learning, hyperbolic trig-substitution included.


Thanks for reading.

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