Representing Trigonometric Functions

Mathematical Goals

This lesson unit is intended to help you assess how well students are able to:

  • Model a periodic situation, the height of a person on a Ferris wheel, using trigonometric functions.
  • Interpret the constants a, b, c in the formula h = a + b cos ct in terms of the physical situation, where h is the height of the person above the ground and t is the elapsed time.


It is helpful if students have met graphs of the sine and cosine functions before this lesson unit.

The unit is structured in the following way:

  • Before the lesson, students attempt the assessment task individually. You then review their solutions and formulate questions for students to answer in order for them to improve their work.
  • In the lesson, students engage in pairs or threes on a related card-matching task. Throughout their work they justify and explain their decisions to peers. In a whole-class discussion, students explain and extend their solutions and methods.
  • Finally, students work alone on a task similar to the assessment task.

Materials required

  • Each student will need a copy of Ferris Wheel and Ferris Wheel (revisited), a scientific calculator (not a graphing calculator), a mini-whiteboard, a pen, and an eraser.
  • Each small group of students will need a copy of Card Set A: Graphs, Card Set B: Functions, Card Set C: Descriptions of the wheels, a large sheet of paper, a glue stick, and a pair of scissors. Some teachers cut the cards before the lesson; others ask students to do this for themselves.
  • If you decide to split the lesson over two teaching sessions you will also need some paper clips.

Time needed

20 minutes before the lesson, a 100-minute lesson (or two 50-minute lessons), and 20 minutes in a follow-up lesson. Timings are approximate. Exact timings will depend on the needs of your class.