I’m teaching this 12 week geometry class focusing on 3-dimensional figures. It’s a brand new class, like many at Baxter Academy, so I get to make it up as I go. Since our focus is on 3-dimensional figures, I thought I would begin with some Platonic solids. So I found some nets of the solids that my students could cut and fold. Once they had them constructed, there was a lot of recognition of the different shapes and, even though I was calling them tetrahedron, octahedron, and so on, many of my students began referring to them as if they were dice: D4, D8, D12, D20. Anyway, I must have made some statement about there only being 5 Platonic solids, and they now had the complete set. One student asked, “How do we know that? How do we know that there are only 5?” Great question, right?
I really felt that before we could go down the road of answering that question, my students needed a bit more knowledge and exploration around these shapes, and maybe some thinking around tiling the plane would help, too. So we spent some time trying to draw them, counting faces, edges, and vertices, visualizing what they might look like with vertices cut off, unfolding them into nets, and wondering why regular hexagons tiled a plane, but regular pentagons did not. We played around with the sides – a lot – and even talked about this thing called vertex angle defect. Then we returned to the question of why only five. Students were able to connect the need for some defect (angles totaling less than 360 degrees) and the ability to create a 3-dimensional figure. Through the investigation, they were able to see that the only combinations of regular polygons that worked (by sharing a vertex) would be 3, 4, and 5 equilateral triangles, 3 squares, and 3 regular pentagons. They could give solid reasons why 6 triangles, 4 squares, 4 pentagons, and any number of other regular polygons could not be used to create a new Platonic solid.
I had not anticipated this question, and had not included it in my plans. But, because it was asked, thankfully, by a student, it pushed us into thinking more deeply about these shapes (and their definition). And, ultimately, my students were able to answer the “why only five” question for themselves.