Mathematics with Spreadsheets

One of the popular courses for freshmen in most colleges is an introduction to computers and their applications. Usually such a course covers material on introduction to Windows, spreadsheets, database applications, and word processing. With the advent of Windows 95 and the simplicity of recent word processing software, it is not necessary to take valuable class time to cover these items. Spreadsheets, on the other hand, have become more sophisticated and are now capable of performing a variety of tasks.

Although knowledge of a spreadsheet is one of the essential tools for any college graduate, colleges often find it difficult to devote a complete semester to teaching it. This is where the sophistication of today's spreadsheets may come into play. They can be used in almost all fields, in particular they are at home in the mathematical sciences domain. That is, one can teach introductory college level mathematics using a spreadsheet as a tool. In this manner students learn about the spreadsheet even though the spreadsheet itself would not be the primary objective of the course.

Any of the most recent versions of the commercially available spreadsheets are equally capable of performing such service. I have chosen Microsoft Excel for this purpose. Here are some of the mathematical subjects that I tackle using Excel as the tool: polynomials and their properties, quadratic equations and quadratic formula, solving equations by approximating their roots, solving systems of two equations and two unknowns, optimization, linear programming, trigonometric functions, exponential and logarithmic functions, binomial expansions and Pascal's Triangle, normal and discrete probability distribution functions, and amortization.

In addition to the above mathematical concepts, one can use the programming capability of the spreadsheet to include some programming concepts. For example Excel uses the Visual Basic programming language for its macros. One can push this aspect as little or as far as such a course allows.

To give some examples, I'll present a brief description of some of these topics.

Solving equations

To obtain numerical approximation of the solutions of an equation, one can graph the equation and "zoom in" on its x-intercepts through changing the x-axis scales. The figure at right shows the approximation for one of the roots of the equation x3 + 3 x + 1 = 0

The same technique can be used to solve any system of equations in two variables.

Trigonometric functions

An effective way of learning the properties of the trigonometric functions is to experience them. For instance to show the roles of A, n, and P in the equations

Y = A sin (n x + P)

Y = A cos (n x + P)

name three cells A, n, and P. Use these names to generate the function values over the interval [0, 6.3] representing the interval [0, 2]. Graph these two functions next to the graphs of sin(x) and cos(x). Now by entering different values for A, n, and P we can examine their effects on both graphs. This method provides a quick confirmation that the parameter A sets the amplitude, parameter n effects the period, and parameter P corresponds to the phase shift.

One can even show the graphical proofs of equalities such as

sin(-x + /2 ) = cos(x)

cos(-x + /2 ) = sin(x)

by setting A = 1, n = -1 and P = PI()/2

Pascal's Triangle and Binomial Expansion

To generate Pascal's triangle shown on right, enter 1 and the formula =B2 + A2 in the cells B2 and B3, respectively. Copy the cell B3 into the region B3:K11 and remove the trailing zeros.

The function C(n, m) in Excel returns the value of "n choose m". That is,

The binomial expression (x + y) n can be represented by

(x + y) n = C(n, 0) xn + C(n, 1) xn - 1 y + C(n, 2) xn - 2 y2 + ... + C(n, n) yn

Linear Transformations

The relationship between the function f(x) and its linear transformation f(x + a) + b can be investigated by graphing both functions for variety of values for a and b. To do so, name two cells a and b respectively. Generate x and y values for your function over a set interval. The y values for the function f(x + a) + b are evaluated directly. For example if f(x) = x 2, enter the formula = (x + a)2 + b for the first y value and copy it to the entire y range. When changing the values of a and b, graph responds accordingly. This visualization technique helps students to understand linear transformations by examining variety of quick examples.

Optimization and Linear Programming

An investigative way of finding the maximum or minimum of a function is to graph the function and zoom in on the desired point. In addition to this direct technique, Excel provides utilities such as the Solver and Goal Seek. With these utilities one can solve linear programming type problems. Consider the following problem:

Susan has set aside $100 for her monthly entertainment. If a dinner costs $15 with the satisfaction rate of 35, a movie costs $7 with the satisfaction rate of 15, and a skiing trip costs $40 with the satisfaction rate of 90. How should she spend her entertainment money to maximize her satisfaction?

To set this problem up, enter the labels as shown. Enter appropriate formulas in the Price and Satisfaction columns. For instance, enter B4 * 15 in C4, B4 * 35 in D4, and C4 + C5 + C6 in C8. Use the Solver to maximize the cell D8 which represents the total satisfaction based on the following constraints:

B4 = Integer

B4 >= 0

B5 = Integer

B5 >= 0

B6 = Integer

B6 >= 0

C8 <= 100

This will produce values 4, 0, and 1 for the number of dinners, movies, and ski trips, respectively.


Golshan, Bahram Problem Solving with Microsoft Excel, Lycoming College, Williamsport PA, 1997.