Category Archives: Angles

Satellites Spinning Round: Circles Part 3 (Tangents and Incircle)


Have you ever wondered how far a satellite is from the planet?  Sometimes people think about these objects flying through the sky and rotating around a planet.  Such wonders have even inspired greats like Isaac Newton and Kepler.

Some good folk over at illustrative mathematics put this whole satellite into some simpler geometry with circles, triangles, and tangents.


Inspired by these I sought out to simplify the idea of tangents and how they fit around a circle.  We played with this:



Warm up with some questions about the applet,
    • What shapes do you see?
    • Which measures, do you think are congruent?
go into some more typical math questions,
    • What is the perimeter of the triangle?
get a little geeky
    • What is the total area of the triangle (circle included)?
Then get all geeky advanced.
  • How do you calculate the value for the area of the blue shaded area (circle excluded)?

 Student discourse:

Along the way here were some awesome teachable moments:

T: What kind of segments do you see?
S1: Tangents
T: How do you know?
S1: ’cause it says ‘tangent’.
T: I’m still not convinced. Maybe I mislabeled it. Prove it.
S2: They’re perpendicular. Tangents are perpendicular.
T: Anything else? Any other types of segments or is that it?
T: What about inside? Any segments inside the circle?
S3: Radius! There’s a radius!
T: Where?
S3: Here?
T: Where? Pretend I’m blind.
S3: You already are blind Butler, that’s why you wear glasses.
T: [fake smile]
S3: Here at AJ. Ohh, and also AF. And these ones to but you didn’t label them.
T: Do you notice anything else? What if you drag around that red thing?
S3: They’re all the same?
T: What are the same?
S3: The radiussus. Does that mean they’re equal?
T: What do you think?
S3: Yeah, equal. They have to be, cause of the red thing.

S: Hey Butler, is that a kite?
T: It sure looks like it huh? What do we know about kites?
S: There’s stuff that’s the same. Like congruent.
T: For example…?
S: The pieces that match.
T: So how can you use that?
S: They’re equal. Oh wait, they’re equal. Sooo….
And then the student goes on to apply that understanding to fill in the blanks for the missing segment lengths.

The idea of using a few measures, congruent relationships, and some triangle calculations helped the students apply the geometry and calculations further than just one calculation.  As a follow up assessment they completed a static version of the question.  This was easy to create by just taking a screenshot of the applet at some particular balance.

Some day I want to advance this further with some clock math.

Circles Part 2: Angle Relationships

Once similarity intuition has been built with circles, we can start getting into more specific relationships with angles and segments.  This post will look at using visual information from central angles and inscribed angles.

Pi Charts

Students sometimes lack intuition for the measure of something.  Andrew Stadel has developed this idea into a thorough curriculum on estimation. In my classes we started reasoning through similar exercises.  Once we had a decent understanding of circle parts and whole, we moved on to other types of angles.

Non-Central Angles

At this point most students have the common sense that a circle has 360 degrees, and a triangle is half that at 180 degrees.  Built with this intuition in mind, we look at a triangle created by inscribed angles.

The next day we get to see the formula that collapses 3 ideas down to 1.

Dynamic Angles in Circles

So many of us have tried to organize all the formulas that go with circles.  It’s nice when textbooks or other curriculum organizers dom something like:



This is nice, but it still implies that all these relationships are discrete.  Instead it would be better to look at them as connected.

I originally thought students would look at this and see how the measures relate.  It wasn’t obvious, so I interjected with a simple exercise to the students.

Congruent Overlap

I saw two half sheets (8.25×5.5) of paper on my desk.  I held them up and asked the class, “Are these congruent?”  The response was something like, “Uh, Duh Mr. Butler.”  So I challenged them further, “Would you bet $1,000 on it?”

Now the silent sound of a gambler’s contemplation…

A more valuable decision requires some precision and accuracy.  As they were thinking I allowed additional information, “You can’t touch them, but you can ask me to do anything you want.”  They took the bait.  “Just overlap them, Butler.”  Now they’re headed in the right direction.  Overlapping layers can reveal congruence or equal measure.  Anyone could ask a similar question for an image like these puzzle pieces:

Congruent Puzzle Pieces

To support the visual information, students need to look at the measures involved and start building the relationships (SMP7 and SMP8).  After multiple true versions of the math relationships, we can return to something like the original table.

Students start to see that the table is simply 3 snapshots of this dynamic relationship. Then it is easier to organize the information in their relative schemas.  From here we go to paper practice with simple examples and eventually into a more complex question with multiple parts.


I took a discrete snapshot from this applet and used it as a paper assessment.  Students were solving for complex relationships with multiple layers, and not all with the same process.  Common Core math like this requires utilizing big picture relationships while at the same time being able to articulate the specifics within those relationships.

Next time:

This series of dynamic relationships within a circle continues next looking at segments, first with only tangents, and then into various combinations with secants and/or tangents.


Sum it up, Angle Edition part 1

Teaching Notes




  1. If angle BAE = ______, what are all the other angles.
  2. Which angle sums equal 180o?
  3. Which angle sums equal 90o?
  4. Which angle pairs/groups are equal?
  5. Find which angle pairs are supplementary, complementary and vertical
  6. Does it matter if angle BAE is acute or obtuse?