I had a conversation with a colleague a few years ago about volumes of revolution in Calculus. We were both a few years removed from our own Calculus courses in high school and college, and we were talking about how we thought about the concept visually.
For those that need a refresher, here is the idea behind a volume of revolution. Imagine you have a solid object that can be lined up with the x-axis so that its cross section looks like the image below. The object would have a pointy end at the origin (0,0) and a circular face located at x = 1. The closest real world object that fits this description is a Hershey’s Kiss.
The object is axially symmetric about the x-axis. If you were to cut the object with a knife so that the cut passes through the pointy end and the center of the flat face, the image at left would always be the cross section.
A volume of revolution is usually defined by an even simpler idea. Take a region of a graph and rotate it in a circle around some axis. The region at left is defined by rotating the area under the graph of y = x 2 around the x-axis.
My colleague’s way of visualizing this idea started with the solid itself. Cut it into a series of discs, each of width dx , and then analyze a single differential disc to come up with an integral expression for the entire volume. This requires being able to visualize the entire solid first, and then see how it can be cut into discs.
I didn’t see it this way. I could visualize the solid usually, but to then mentally cut the solid into discs, and then construct a differential volume seemed to have one too many steps to make it simple. I focused on the step that made conceptual sense to me: start with a defined region and rotate it around an axis to create a solid. The differential strip of area we had been making underneath the graph since the first introduction of the definite integral was what I always visualized during integration. I could visualize taking that strip and rotating it around to form a disc, and using that concept for the differential volume. Then add up these discs through an integral to find the volume.
When I taught volume of revolution for the first time, I wanted to introduce it in a way that would emphasize how I had come to understand the concept. Granted, this assumes my way will work for the students, but so far it seems to be doing so pretty well.
Three dimensional computer modeling programs (Blender, Pro-E, Autodesk Inventor, etc) all have a function called ‘Revolve’ which is, by definition, how volumes of revolution are created. The idea is that you define a region, pick an axis, and then the software will create a 3D solid and display it. Having a copy of Pro-E from our FIRST Tech Challenge team, I was able to introduce the process with a series of demonstrations live with the software. Some examples:
The students immediately saw what was going on, and didn’t think much of the process. I could quickly make a sketch, revolve it, and then rotate the object around for students to see what it would look like if actually in front of them. We then proceeded to revolve strips under and between graphs to generate discs and washers. Writing the integrals was then a fairly simple process.
I think the difficulty that might come up with this type of problem is the visualizing step. Students must visualize the 3D shape in order to solve problems related to its volume. I think having this sort of tool available has made a big difference in my students seeing what it means to create a volume of revolution, which then leads to an easier time conceptualizing how to then find its volume using Calculus.