blue zome figure

An advanced geometry elective after Algebra 2
by Henri Picciotto

Course Description

This is a course I taught at the Urban School Math Department every other year between 1991 and 2013. It is an advanced geometry elective, with two interrelated components.

1. Symmetry and Transformations

Symmetry is a great entry point into abstract algebra, an area of pure mathematics. Transformations provide a different approach to geometry than the one students usually experience in a traditional Geometry class. These two topics are intimately connected, and we study them in depth.

2. Dimensions, from 1 to 4

This is not so much a topic as an arena for exploration. We mostly work in three dimensions, based on hands-on model building with the Zome System and with Cabri 3D:

Towards the end of the course, we do some work on visualizing the fourth dimension, through reading, model building, discussion, and analogy -- in part based on Abbott's Flatland, a classic of mathematical fiction.


You can download a presentation about the class, which includes among other things photos of student-created designs, Zome buildings, and symmetry in every day life. See also a shorter and more recent version of the talk, and finally a 2D version for teachers of grades 7-10. (Warning: these are large files.) The Cabri files below are also part of these presentations.

The sequence of lessons on the transformational geometry and symmetry component of the course, the last time I taught it, is here. That page also includes some discussion of the impact of the Common Core State Standards in bringing transformational geometry to the mainstream.

Isometries of the Plane is a substantial unit on transformational geometry, largely based on worksheets I used in the class.

Here are some materials I used in the course. Alas, I couldn't always do everything outlined below as time tends to run out.


From Algebra: Themes, Tools, Concepts by Anita Wah and Henri Picciotto, several lessons on Abstract Algebra, which work well in combination with the material in Brown's book.

Transformational Geometry by Richard G. Brown (Dale Seymour Publications -- out of print but findable on the Web). Pretty much the whole book. The book is made much more accessible with the help of interactive geometry software. (See below.)

Handbook of Regular Patterns by Peter Stevens (MIT Press). An extraordinary multicultural mathematical source on symmetry. I use it as a source of designs and ask students to identify the symmetry groups. I would do more with it if I had time.

Scott Kim's Inversions (Key Curriculum Press), a book where symmetry interacts with a demented typography to create entertaining and thought-provoking images.

Flatland by Edwin Abbott. Extremely cheap from Dover Books, and free on line. (Some students read the whole thing, but the math is mostly in chapters 1, 2, and 13-22.) There are several excellent sequels, but I don't have time for them in this class. I have not seen the Flatland movies, but I have sometimes shown part of a fun Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Homer accidentally goes 3D.


Geometry Labs by Henri Picciotto. Labs 5.1, 5.5-5.8, 6.5, 7.3, 7.4. Some of those involve pattern blocks, some involve mirrors, and some involve my Geometry Labs template.

Triangle paper is useful for some of the lessons on symmetry.

Here are starter layouts for wallpaper, using pattern blocks. Students can extend the desighs by using only the indicated reflections.

Zometool and Zome Geometry by George Hart and Henri Picciotto (where to get it). Lessons 2.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.1, 6.1, 6.2, 7.1, 7.3, 9.1, 9.2, 10.1, 11.1, 11.2, 21.1, 21.2, 21.4, 24.1. I would do more with this too if I had time! (See also George Hart's site).

Jovo, another building toy which is based on faces (as opposed to Zome's focus on edges and vertices). Jovo is excellent for introducing the Platonic and Archimedean solids.

Electronic tools

Cabri software (two- and three-D) is a crucial tool. (In two dimensions, Geometer's Sketchpad would also work, of course.) Once I started using Cabri II+, the transformational geometry part of the course became vastly more accessible. See the attached Cabri files for some examples of teacher demos I use when presenting this material to teachers, but of course the main benefit of using this kind of software is when students build their own figures. I have only scratched the surface with Cabri 3D, which has tremendous potential for the latter part of the course.

The TI-89 calculator is wonderful for the work with complex numbers and matrices. One can create functions that output matrices, so for example after defining those functions, one can enter tr(2,3)*ro(45)*tr(-2,-3) to create a matrix that will translate by the vector (-2,-3), then rotate 45 degrees around the origin, and finally translate by the vector (2,3). See the worksheets on Computing Transformations and the TI-89 files.

I am pulling together the work I have been doing in Cabri and on the TI-89 into a single environment by using GeoGebra, an open source application which includes interactive geometry, complex numbers, and matrices. This will be useful to teachers who intend to incorporate the Common Core emphasis on transformational geometry into their curriculum.

Adobe Illustrator is a very mathematical program, very well-suited for creating symmetric designs.

vZome provides a way to create Zome constructions (and more) on the computer. I have not used with students, but would have if time had allowed.

How proof figures in the course

This is a course with students who are more developmentally ready for proof than students in a geometry class in ninth or tenth grade .

Transformational Geometry is largely about formally proving what Brown calls the fundamental theorems of isometries in the plane (that one is uniquely determined by the images of three non-collinear points, that each can be expressed as a sequence of no more than three line reflections, and that there are only four distinct isometries.) This is rather epic, and takes a few weeks, but it is very satisfying. He follows up with proofs of various results about isometries, some of them geometric, and some algebraic. The latter are often very elegant, and a testament to the power of group theory.

Zome Geometry includes proofs of why there are only five platonic solids, as well as Descartes' and Euler's theorems about polyhedra.

Get in Touch!

Having taught this course over a 22-year period, I have a strong understanding of transformational geometry and how to introduce it to students. If you want me to offer a workshop to your district or department, please get in touch!

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Related pages on this site:
Complex Numbers
Geometric Transformations
Proof | Math 2
An introductory lesson about knot theory.
Some notes on Rubik's cube.
Infinity, another advanced elective for high school.