Our last Geometry Problem of the Week, Voulez Vous des Voussoirs?, deals with building arches using trapezoidal blocks. Maybe you’ve had a chance to build such an arch at a museum. I’ve done it most recently with my sister’s family at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. In our problem, if you’re told the angle measure of the obtuse angles of the “trapezoid”, how can you figure out how many identical blocks are needed to build a semi-circular arch?

What is most interesting to me about this problem is that different people seem to “see” it in different ways. That is, they get one particular model in their head of the situation. When I first solved it, I “saw” it like this:


A few students saw it that way, though it wasn’t the most common method we saw. Here’s an excerpt from one solution:

Renuka D

I knew if the obtuse angles were 96 degrees, the supplement would be 84. Because of symmetry, the two sides of the voussoir must meet at the center of the semi-circle. In this way a triangle is formed, so therefore the angle at the center of the circle must be 180 – (84+84).

Here’s the second idea I “saw” when I solved this:

Stack of Voussoirs

This was the basis of the most common method that students used this week, and is explained in excerpts from two solutions:

Gavin T, Highlands Elementary School

I knew that if all the angles were 90 degree angles, the arch wouldn’t be an arch, it would go straight up. 96 degrees meant that each angle angled the arch 6 more degrees.

Jed M, Waterford Elementary School

If there is a 6° increase on each angle. (I know that because there 96° angles, and if it was a 90° angle it would go straight up.) And there’s two angles on each voussoir. So theres a total of a 12° increase. I’ll use math sentences to get a total of 180 and what ever number times twelve equals 180 is my answer.

Then there’s the image conjured up by a group of students from Conners Emerson School in Maine. They made it a problem about angles of regular polygons. That had never occurred to me, so it was exciting to get their submission. Here’s my version of what they “saw”:

Circle of Voussoirs

Here are some excerpts from their solution, including a hint and their picture:

Xingyao C, Tarzan M, and Tom G, Conners Emerson School

We drew a diagram of two of the voussoirs adjacent to each other. If the voussoirs make it all the way around, they would form a regular polygon.

The two adjacent acute angles of the trapezoids make an interior angle of the regular poylgon.

Hint: Try not to look at the voussoirs as solitary pieces, but as part of a convex polygon. You are not trying to find the information of each individual voussoir, but the information of the arch made by many.

Two Voussoirs

(I can’t help but point out that they named their picture “French Words in Math”, which I think is awesome!

I wonder how you think your students “saw” this situation. Was one solution method more common, or was there a variety of models used in your classroom? How did you see the situation? Please let us know!

Some Voulez Vous de Voussoirs? links in case you are interested: