Side-Side-Angle Ambiguity

For years (okay, it’s only been three…) I have struggled with how to teach the SSA ambiguity in the context of the Law of Sines. My first year, which is mostly a blur looking back, I’m not sure that I even understood it that well. It was in the context of geometry and I think we (geometry teachers) decided we would let Algebra II and precalc teachers handle that special case.

And then in my second year I taught Algebra II and precalc.

So I ‘ve been through this topic a few times and each time I feel like the kids get a glimpse of what’s going on but really have no deep understanding at all. After a botched geogebra demonstration in precalc earlier this year I decided to look to the Math Twitter Blogosphere for help.

From that tweet Matt Salerno sent me this activity/post from Dave Sladkey. I didn’t really want to mess with pipe cleaners so I modified it a fair bit, but the general concept is the same. Check out the activity.

In the activity we deal with a given acute angle first. Everything they learn from the acute angle exploration made the obtuse angle exploration fairly straightforward. One positive of this activity is that it is accessible to all students right away. “Draw lines using your ruler, then make observations. How many can you make?” Then I ask students to dig a little deeper into finding certain parameters that caused there to be one triangle, no triangles, or two triangles. By the end almost all of my students at least had a visual understanding of when each situation could occur. Once we did the activity (which took about 45 minutes) I showed them the slide below, and talked about the importance of the segment labeled “h”. Because they had just done the activity, the importance of this segment was fairly obvious! I just had to name it. We derived the formula h = b • sin A,  and then we finally solved a few triangles using the law of sines.


One misconception that I had to address was that many students said that one triangle could be made when side a was 5.5″, instead of greater than 5. Next time I need to build in a question or two to make them think about when side a is longer than the 5.5″ they drew in.

Any feedback you can provide or how you introduce and teach this topic would be greatly appreciated! Below are some of my students’ solutions.

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