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Subject: Mathematics SL

Name of Candidate: Martin Lai

Candidate Number: 2934-19

Teacher: Mr. Curic

Session: May 2014

School Name: Monarch Park Collegiate

School IB Number: 2394

Word Count: 3,484

Date: Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Page 1 of 16

1

Parametric equations are a set of equations that describe the co-ordinates of a function or curve

at a specific point in terms of a parameter, usually t to represent time, or another variable. This math

exploration will be focusing on parametric equations of curves in the two-dimensional xy plane. Hence,

these parametric equations take the form:

𝑥 = 𝑥(𝑡)

𝑦 = 𝑦(𝑡)

In this way, we can describe the positions of both the x and y co-ordinates as functions of a third

variable, known as the parameter. By using these parametric equations, the position of an object can be

written as (x,y) = (x(t), y(t)). This is particularly useful for describing the specific location of a moving

object at any time t that is moving along a vector or curved path. However, parametric equations also

have many other applications that will be explained later in this exploration. First, we will investigate

the method of parameterizing equations. Then, we will investigate the properties of parametric

equations to model circular motion and vectors. Last, calculus concepts will be implemented through

the differentiation and integration of the parametric equations to develop a better understanding of

how parametric equations can reveal valuable information about motion and curves. Above all, real life

situations will be integrated throughout this exploration in order to give a sense to the practical

purposes and connections we can make to the real world and our own lives. The aim of this exploration

will be to explore parametric equations and how they can model and reveal properties about motion

problems.

My rationale for choosing parametric equations as the topic for this investigation is due to my

interest with physics. After completing two years of physics classes I have started to apply physics

concepts and connections to other areas of my life and this has been an enlightening experience that

gave me a new perspective of the world. The area of physics that deals with the motion of objects is

known as Kinematics. After some research, I found that we can also study motion of an object through

the use of mathematical modeling and equations, such as parametric equations. Being able to know the

location of a specific object at any time is an immense asset to understanding the world around us, such

as the movement of boats, airplanes and animals, but also on a subatomic level with particles. It is the

sheer practicality of parametric equations that made this an appealing choice for an investigation.

Moreover, parametric equations also integrate many concepts that I have been learning throughout

high school such as curve sketching, functions, calculus and vectors, allowing me to apply those

concepts to a new area of study and make connections to them in a meaningful way.

2

First, we will investigate how to put basic functions into parametric form, which is known as

parameterizing1 an equation.

Example:

𝑦 = 𝑓(𝑥) = −0.5𝑥 2 + 3𝑥 + 2.

This is a quadratic function, as it is in the form y = ax2 + bx + c. To parameterize this equation in terms of

the variable t, let 𝑥 = 𝑡, such that:

𝑥 = 𝑡 𝑡≥0

𝑦 = −0.5𝑡 2 + 3𝑡 + 2

With a simple substitution we can now determine the position of an object at time t on the curve given

by the function f(x) in terms of both x and y. For example, suppose that these parametric equations

represent a tennis ball’s position as it moves through the air:

This may seem like a regular parabolic curve that models the motion of an object; however, while the x-

axis usually represents time, here we can describe the x-axis as its horizontal distance. Being able to

1

"Parametric Equations and Curves." Calculus II. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/CalcII/ParametricEqn.aspx>.

3

keep track of both horizontal and vertical distances separately allows for a very specific understanding

of the location of the ball at a certain time.

If I wanted to find out how far I could hit a tennis ball in 2 seconds, I could simply substitute 𝑡 = 2 to the

parametric equations:

𝑥=2

𝑦 = −0.5(2)2 + 3(2) + 2 = 6

The position of the tennis ball would be at (3,6), and if we were to define distance in this

situation in metres, the tennis ball would be 3 meters away from me horizontally and 6 meters above

the ground after 2 seconds of flight. Another major addition with the use of parametric equations is the

use of orientation arrows2. Notice that the arrows drawn on the parameterized curve point towards a

specific direction. These arrows tell us the direction of motion that the object is experiencing at any t

value. Using the example above, at 𝑡 = 2𝑠 the tennis ball is moving up and to the right. The orientation

tells us the direction of a moving object as the value of 𝑡 increases.

𝑥2 + 𝑦2 = 𝑟2

Working with this equation, it is very difficult to solve for the co-ordinates of a specific point without

having the value of the radius and either the x or y co-ordinate. The solution to this problem is

parametric equations.

First, we consider a right triangle, whose hypotenuse starts at the center of the circle and extends the

length of the radius:

2

http://www.mcs.sdsmt.edu/tkowalsk/notes/Basic-facts-about-parametric-equations.pdf

4

To find the co-ordinates of point A on the outside of the circle, I revisited trigonometry that I learned in

previous grades, which states:

𝒐𝒑𝒑𝒐𝒔𝒊𝒕𝒆(𝒐) 𝒂𝒅𝒋𝒂𝒄𝒆𝒏𝒕(𝒂)

𝒔𝒊𝒏𝜭 = 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒄𝒐𝒔𝜭 =

𝒉𝒚𝒑𝒐𝒕𝒆𝒏𝒖𝒔𝒆(𝒉) 𝒉𝒚𝒑𝒐𝒕𝒆𝒏𝒖𝒔𝒆(𝒉)

Looking at the diagram, side 𝑜 is the y co-ordinate of point A, and h is the radius of the circle. Therefore,

we can say:

𝒚

𝒔𝒊𝒏𝜭 = 𝒓

𝒚 = 𝒓𝒔𝒊𝒏𝜭.

Since the 𝑎 can be described as the x co-ordinate of point A, we can likewise say

𝒙 = 𝒓𝒄𝒐𝒔𝜭.

By manipulating these parametric equations, we can model many different types of circular motion.

We can also incorporate the angular speed (how fast an object rotates around a circle) into parametric

equations3. Noting that:

For example, we can model the movement of point A moving along a bicycle wheel with the center on

the origin, shown below:

3

"Parametric Equations." University of Washington. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.math.washington.edu/~m124/source/supps/paraeqns1.pdf>.

5

The radius of the bicycle 2 units, so we substitute 2 for r in our parametric equations:

If we assume that I am riding the bicycle and pedaling at a constant rate such that the angular speed is

𝜋

4

radians/sec, we have the parametric equations

𝜋

𝑦 = 2𝑠𝑖𝑛( 4 𝑡)

{ 𝜋

𝑥 = 2𝑐𝑜𝑠( 4 𝑡)

Let us graph these equations to observe the motion of Point A moving along the circle:

t 𝝅 𝝅

𝒙 = 𝟐𝐜𝐨𝐬( 𝒕) 𝒚 = 𝟐𝒔𝒊𝒏( 𝒕)

𝟒 𝟒

1s 𝜋 𝜋 √2

𝑥 = 2 cos (4 (1)) = 2 cos ( 4 ) = 2( 2 ) =√2 ≈ 1.4

𝜋 𝜋 √2

𝑦 = 2𝑠𝑖𝑛 ( 4 (1)) = 2 sin ( 4 ) =2( 2 ) = √2 ≈ 1.4

2s 0 2

3s -1.4 1.4

4s -2 0

5s -1.4 -1.4

6s 0 -2

7s 1.4 -1.4

8s 2 0

Note how at t=8s, Point A has moved back to its original position. If we wanted to only look at one

rotation of the point on the wheel, we could set the restriction as: 0 ≤ 𝑡 ≤ 8𝑠

6

Immediately, I notice that according to the orientation arrows on the parameterized curve, the

direction of rotation is counterclockwise. Obviously, this does not fit the real life situation since the

wheel would be rotating backwards. How can we change the direction of the orientation arrows? Notice

𝝅

that the positive angular speed of 𝟒 𝒓𝒂𝒅/𝒔𝒆𝒄 always corresponds to a counterclockwise direction; to

reverse this, we simply make the angular speed negative. From learning about transformations of

functions, I know that this is the same as a flip across the y-axis. Referring to the graph above, it is

obvious that this would make the orientation arrows move in a clockwise direction.

𝝅 𝝅

𝒚 = 𝟐𝒔𝒊𝒏(− 𝟒 𝒕) 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒙 = 𝟐𝐜𝐨𝐬(− 𝟒 𝒕). This also helps us conclude that if angular speed,

𝜔 > 0, then the direction of motion will be counterclockwise, and clockwise when 𝜔 < 0.

This type of modelling can be very interesting and useful for investigating the circular motion of

objects, and can be applied to rotating engines, or even knowing the location of a planet in its orbit at a

certain time by building off of this concept of parametric equations. In further study, these parametric

equations can also be modified using vertical and horizontal transformations, or using different

trigonometric operators aside from sine and cosine.

Recall that the general form of a vector equation for the position object moving at constant velocity is:

⃗⃗𝒓 = 𝒂 ⃗ 𝒇𝒐𝒓 𝒕 ≥ 𝟎

⃗ + 𝒕𝒃

𝑎 is the initial position vector,⃗⃗𝑏 is the velocity vector, and⃗⃗𝑟 is the object’s position relative to the origin

at time 𝑡. In essence, a position vector is the vector that represents the position of Point P relative to the

origin at (0,0), the velocity vector tells us the direction of motion as well as its speed, and vector ⃗⃗𝑟

represents my displacement, or change in position, as I walk.

For example, suppose I wanted to model my motion on a morning walk relative to my house at point O

(0,0). At 9:00 AM, I start at Point P, which is the start of the hiking trail, located at the point (1,2).

Using an online graphing tool, I was able to model this situation using vectors:

7

The position vector 𝑎 is therefore [1,2] as point P is 1 metre East and 2 metres North of the origin (0,0),

which in this case is my house.

I walk at a constant velocity in a straight line down the path, which can be modelled by the velocity

vector 𝑏⃗, [2,-1].

⃗ + 𝒕𝒃

𝟏 𝟐 𝒙 𝟏 𝟐

⃗ = [ ] + 𝒕 [ ] , 𝒐𝒓 [𝒚] = [ ] + 𝒕 [ ]

𝒓

𝟐 −𝟏 𝟐 −𝟏

To change this vector equation into parametric equations, we deal with the x and y components within

the vector equation separately:

𝒙 𝟏 𝟐

[𝒚] = [ ] + 𝒕 [ ]

𝟐 −𝟏

Parametric equations:

𝒙 = 𝟏 + 𝟐𝒕

𝒚=𝟐−𝒕

𝒙 = 𝟏 + 𝟐𝒕 = 𝟏 + 𝟐(𝟐) = 𝟓

𝒚 = 𝟐 − 𝒕 = 𝟐 − (𝟐) = 𝟎

But how would we model this situation with a single equation? Since parametric equations set x and y in

terms of a third variable (the parameter), a conjecture can be made that we can simply solve for the

parameter, in this case t, in order to end up with a single equation in terms of x and y only.

𝒙 = 𝟏 + 𝟐𝒕

𝒚=𝟐−𝒕

8

First, solve for the parameter in one of the equations:

𝒙−𝟏

𝒙 = 𝟏 + 𝟐𝒕 → 𝒕 = 𝟐

𝒚=𝟐−𝒕

𝒙−𝟏

𝒚=𝟐−( 𝟐

)

𝟐𝒚 = 𝟒 − (𝒙 − 𝟏) → 𝟐𝒚 = 𝟒 − 𝒙 − 𝟐 → 𝟐𝒚 = 𝟒 − 𝒙

𝒙 + 𝟐𝒚 = 𝟒

Since this equation is in terms of x and y only, which are the variables used in the Cartesian coordinate

system, it is said to be put into Cartesian form. This can be a useful form because it allows for y to be

defined in terms of x for a clear relationship to be shown between the two variables.

In the next section we will attempt to incorporate calculus concepts into our understanding of

parametric equations.

𝑑𝑥 𝑑𝑦

= 𝑥 ′ (𝑡) = 𝑦 ′ (𝑡)

𝑑𝑡 𝑑𝑡

The derivatives, x’(t) and y’(t) are known as velocity equations as they reveal information about the

motion of an object. x’(t) and y’(t) are respectively called the horizontal and vertical components of

velocity. Derivatives are functions that measure the instantaneous rate of change, or slope of the

tangent at one point on the graph. A tangent is simply a line that touches only one point on a curve.

Like any line, we could create an equation that tells us about the motion of the object at that specific

point.

These equations can tell us the direction of travel of an object on the curve.

We know that if the slope of a tangent is positive, then function is increasing at the time and moving

right and upwards. Oppositely, a negative tangent slope means the object is moving left or downwards:

{ ′ { ′

𝑥 (𝑡) < 0 → 𝑀𝑜𝑣𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑙𝑒𝑓𝑡 𝑦 (𝑡) < 0 → 𝑀𝑜𝑣𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝐷𝑜𝑤𝑛𝑤𝑎𝑟𝑑𝑠

This is a simple way to confirm the direction of motion at any time 𝑡 without graphing.

9

Let us revisit the parametric equations for the tennis ball example earlier in this exploration:

𝑥(𝑡) = 𝑡 𝑡≥0

𝑦(𝑡) = −0.5𝑡 2 + 3𝑡 + 2

𝒙’(𝒕) = 𝟏

𝒚’(𝒕) = −𝒕 + 𝟑

From this alone we see that x’(t) will always be positive, and that the object will always be moving right.

This makes sense if we look at the graph as the value of x is always increasing as t increases. Now, let us

find the vertical direction of the tennis ball when 𝑡 = 2𝑠 and 𝑡 = 5𝑠.

t = 2s: 𝒚’(𝟐) = −(𝟐) + 𝟑 = 𝟏, which confirms that the ball is moving upwards at 2s.

𝑡 = 5𝑠: 𝒚’(𝟓) = −(𝟓) + 𝟑 = −𝟐, which confirms that the ball is moving downwards at 5s.

We also know from calculus that 𝒙’(𝒕) = 𝟎 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝒚’(𝒕) = 𝟎 are turning points, since they correspond to

where a local maximum or minimum point is found, also meaning that there is a change in direction.

This allows us to find the intervals of upwards and downwards motion.

𝒚’(𝒕) = 𝟎 → 𝟎 = −𝒕 + 𝟑 → 𝒕=𝟑

10

We can observe the intervals at which the tennis ball moves upwards and downwards without graphing:

before 3s, the ball is moving upwards, while after 3s it is moving downwards. We know this because we

used the test values of 𝑡 = 2𝑠 𝑎𝑛𝑑 𝑡 = 5𝑠 to check the direction of motion before and after 3s.

The second application of parametric equation derivatives is to find the speed of an object at time 𝑡.4

Recall that to find the magnitude of the sum of orthogonal, or right-angled components (x’(t) and y’(t) in

this case) we need to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Since x’(t) and y’(t) are components of velocity, we

can combine them to find the resultant vector, or the speed. Pythagorean Theorem states that the sum

of the squares of the two shorter sides in a right-angled triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse, or

the long side opposite of the right angle. This rule can be represented by the following diagram:

𝟐 𝟐

(𝑺𝒑𝒆𝒆𝒅)𝟐 = (𝒙′ (𝒕)) + (𝒚′ (𝒕))

𝟐 𝟐

𝑺𝒑𝒆𝒆𝒅 = √(𝒙′ (𝒕)) + (𝒚′ (𝒕))

2 2 2 2

𝑆𝑝𝑒𝑒𝑑 = √(𝑥 ′ (𝑡)) + (𝑦 ′ (𝑡)) = √(𝑥 ′ (5)) + (𝑦 ′ (5)) = √(1)2 + (−5)2 = √26 ≈ 5.1

Integration can also tell us valuable information about the motion of an object. Integration is the

inverse process of differentiation – if differentiation tells us the equation of the tangent through the

equation of the curve, then integration does the opposite by providing us with information about the

curve using the equation of the tangent. One of the many uses is to find the arc length of an object’s

trajectory, which is simply the total distance the object has travelled within a time interval. To find the

total distance, we integrate the speed equation.5

𝐿 = ∫ 𝑠𝑝𝑒𝑒𝑑 𝑑𝑡

4

http://www.mcs.sdsmt.edu/tkowalsk/notes/precalc-trig/Basic-facts-about-parametric-equations.pdf

5

http://www.mcs.sdsmt.edu/tkowalsk/notes/precalc-trig/Basic-facts-about-parametric-equations.pdf

11

Now substituting our equation for speed as introduced earlier:

𝐿 = ∫ √(𝑥′(𝑡)2 + (𝑦 ′ (𝑡))2 𝑑𝑡

Since we want to find the value of L within an interval of time, we introduce definite integrals, which is

simply an integral where we define boundaries, known as the upper bound, t1 and the lower bound, t0 ,

in order to calculate a finite value for the distance within that time interval:

𝑡1

𝐿 = ∫ √(𝑥′(𝑡))2 + (𝑦 ′ (𝑡))2 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

Where 𝑡0 is the beginning of the time interval and 𝑡0 is the end of the interval. Again revisiting the tennis

ball example encountered earlier, we will find the total distance it covered while in flight:

𝑡1

2 2

𝐿 = ∫ √(𝑥 ′ (𝑡)) + (𝑦 ′ (𝑡)) 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

𝑡1

= ∫ ((1)2 + (−𝑡 + 3)2 )0.5 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

𝑡1

= ∫ ((1)2 + (−𝑡 + 3)2 )0.5 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

𝑡1

= ∫ (1 + 𝑡 2 − 6𝑡 + 9)0.5 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

𝑡1

= ∫ (𝑡 2 − 6𝑡 + 10)0.5 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

Now, all that is missing is our upper and lower bounds – or our time interval in which the ball was in

flight. To account for the whole time interval that it was in flight, the lower bound, t0 , can be set to be 0

since it was the initial time of release. But how can we find the upper bound, t1 , when the ball hits the

ground? A conjecture can be made that when the ball hits the ground, the vertical distance is y(t) = 0, so

we can solve the y parametric equation to find the t-value at which the ball hits the ground.

𝑦(𝑡) = −0.5𝑡 2 + 3𝑡 + 2

0 = −0.5𝑡 2 + 3𝑡 + 2

12

We can solve this using a formula called the quadratic equation, by substituting in the values of our

equation.

−𝑏 ± √𝑏 2 − 4𝑎𝑐

𝑡=

2𝑎

Note that the coefficient in front of the t2 term from our y-parametric equation is a, the coefficient of

the t term is b, and the c term is the constant; Hence,

𝑡=

2(−0.5)

−3 ± √13

∴𝑡=

−1

𝑡 ≈ −0.60555 s or 𝑡 ≈ 6.60555 s

Being wary of the real life situation, 𝑡 ≥ 0 since time cannot be negative. Therefore, the ball will land at

𝑡 ≈ 6.60555 s. Now that we know the full time interval for which the ball was in flight, which is from 0

seconds to 6.60555 seconds. Hence, 6.60555 will be our upper bound. Now we can calculate the value

of the definite integral:

𝑡1

𝐿 = ∫ (𝑡 2 − 6𝑡 + 10)0.5 𝑑𝑡

𝑡0

6.60555

=∫ (𝑡 2 − 6𝑡 + 10)0.5 𝑑𝑡

0

𝐿 ≈ 13.395 𝑚𝑒𝑡𝑟𝑒𝑠

Hence the arc length, or the total distance covered by the ball while in flight was 13.395 metres.

13

Parametric equations can have many fascinating and practical applications, and through this

mathematical exploration I have been able to develop a greater sense of how the motion of objects can

be modelled, as well as how to draw on math concepts I learned in class such as integration, finding

derivatives, trigonometry, vector equations and the properties of curves in order to manipulate these

equations in a variety of ways. I also learned that parametric curves are different from ordinary

Cartesian curves since they have orientation arrows, which are arrows that point in the direction the

object is moving as time elapses. This property of parametric equations was completely new to me, but

it further developed my engagement with the topic as modelling and investigating the motion of objects

was initially what made me choose this topic. Before, I believed that math was simply a tool used by

physicists; after the exploration, I now believe that physics itself is a subset of math where we are simply

more aware of the real life implications. For example, when I looked at the circular motion of a bicycle

tire, the parametric equations initially showed that the wheels were spinning counterclockwise with the

orientation arrows, but I knew to manipulate the equations to spin clockwise since that is how the

wheels move on a bicycle when pedaling forward. Additionally, the projectile motion question had a

part of the curve start before 𝑡 = 0, and it was obvious that time cannot be negative, so I had to state

the restriction that 𝑡 ≥ 0 accordingly. The applications of parametric equations were so numerous that

I could not cover all of them in this exploration – I chose motion problems because that was the area

that appealed to me. For further exploration, there are a number of other uses for parametric

equations that I came across in my early stages of research, such as modelling complex yet artistic

spirals and curves; I even came across a parametric curve in the shape of a butterfly6 that showed me

how vastly different areas of knowledge such as arts and mathematics can intersect. Moreover, there

was an article that pointed to the use of parametric equations in the field of biological research to

model the shape and abnormalities of spinal disks.7

Parametric equations can also go further than modelling the motion of a tennis ball. For

example, it occurred to me that even a tsunami or tidal wave can be represented by parametric

equations. Information such as its vertical height, velocity, total distance travelled, horizontal position

and other properties that I applied to my examples can similarly be used for natural phenomena, and

can help scientists or the government predict the motion of a large tidal wave and take measures to

protect against it. Moreover, further explorations of parametric equation can be done involving the

third dimension, so instead of just modelling motion in the x and y planes, the z plane can also be

defined in terms for a parameter, and the width or depth or objects can also be modelled, for example

how wide a tidal wave is. Parametric equations can precisely measure and reveal information about the

motion of an object and how phenomena can change over time, and a wealth of knowledge can be

acquired from studying how they can be applied to our everyday lives, in nature as well as on a

theoretical level.

6

http://cims.nyu.edu/~kiryl/Precalculus/Section_8.4-

Plane%20Curves%20and%20Parametric%20Equations/Plane%20Curves%20and%20Parametric%20Equations.pdf

7

http://eprints.qut.edu.au/11142/

14

Works Cited

"Basic Facts About Parametric Equations." Southern Dakota Institute of Mines and Technology. N.p.,

equations.pdf>.

<http://faculty.up.edu/wootton/Calc2/Section10.2.pdf>.

<http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Calculus/Parametric_Introduction>.

"Definite Integral." Wolfram MathWorld. N.p., n.d. Web.

<http://mathworld.wolfram.com/DefiniteIntegral.html>.

<http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/mathematics/18-02sc-multivariable-calculus-fall-2010/1.-vectors-

and-matrices/part-c-parametric-equations-for-curves/session-17-general-parametric-equations-

the-cycloid/MIT18_02SC_notes_9.pdf>.

"Parametric Equations - HMC Calculus Tutorial." Parametric Equations - HMC Calculus Tutorial. N.p.,

"Parametric Equations 1 | Parametric Equations |Khan Academy." Khan Academy. N.p., n.d. Web.

<https://www.khanacademy.org/math/precalculus/parametric_equations/parametric/v/parametric

-equations-1>.

<http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/Classes/CalcII/ParametricEqn.aspx>.

<http://www.docbenton.com/multivariablecalculustools/CHAPTER%203%20PARAMETRIC%

20EQUATIONS%20FOR%20CURVES%20IN%20SPACE.pdf>.

"Parametric Equations." Parametric Equations. N.p., n.d. Web.

<http://colalg.math.csusb.edu/~devel/precalcdemo/param/src/param.html>.

15

"Parametric Equations to Represent the Profile of the Human Intervertebral Disc in the Transverse

<http://www.math.washington.edu/~m124/source/supps/paraeqns1.pdf>.

"Plane Curves and Parametric Equations." Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web.

<http://cims.nyu.edu/~kiryl/Precalculus/Section_8.4-

Plane%20Curves%20and%20Parametric%20Equations/Plane%20Curves%20and%20Parametric

%20Equations.pdf>.

16

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