Modeling with Linear Functions

Learning Outcomes

  • Build linear models from verbal descriptions.
  • Build and solve systems of linear models.
Photo of the Seattle skyline.

Figure 1. (credit: EEK Photography/Flickr)

Emily is a college student who plans to spend a summer in Seattle. She has saved $3,500 for her trip and anticipates spending $400 each week on rent, food, and activities. How can we write a linear model to represent her situation? What would be the x-intercept, and what can she learn from it? To answer these and related questions, we can create a model using a linear function. Models such as this one can be extremely useful for analyzing relationships and making predictions based on those relationships. In this section, we will explore examples of linear function models.

Identifying Steps to Model and Solve Problems

When modeling scenarios with linear functions and solving problems involving quantities with a constant rate of change, we typically follow the same problem strategies that we would use for any type of function. Let’s briefly review them:

  1. Identify changing quantities, and then define descriptive variables to represent those quantities. When appropriate, sketch a picture or define a coordinate system.
  2. Carefully read the problem to identify important information. Look for information that provides values for the variables or values for parts of the functional model, such as slope and initial value.
  3. Carefully read the problem to determine what we are trying to find, identify, solve, or interpret.
  4. Identify a solution pathway from the provided information to what we are trying to find. Often this will involve checking and tracking units, building a table, or even finding a formula for the function being used to model the problem.
  5. When needed, write a formula for the function.
  6. Solve or evaluate the function using the formula.
  7. Reflect on whether your answer is reasonable for the given situation and whether it makes sense mathematically.
  8. Clearly convey your result using appropriate units, and answer in full sentences when necessary.

Building Linear Models

Now let’s take a look at the student in Seattle. In her situation, there are two changing quantities: time and money. The amount of money she has remaining while on vacation depends on how long she stays. We can use this information to define our variables, including units.

  • Output: M, money remaining, in dollars
  • Input: t, time, in weeks

So, the amount of money remaining depends on the number of weeks: M(t)

We can also identify the initial value and the rate of change.

  • Initial Value: She saved $3,500, so $3,500 is the initial value for M.
  • Rate of Change: She anticipates spending $400 each week, so –$400 per week is the rate of change, or slope.

Notice that the unit of dollars per week matches the unit of our output variable divided by our input variable. Also, because the slope is negative, the linear function is decreasing. This should make sense because she is spending money each week.

Figure 2

The rate of change is constant, so we can start with the linear model [latex]M\left(t\right)=mt+b[/latex]. Then we can substitute the intercept and slope provided.

To find the x-intercept, we set the output to zero, and solve for the input.

[latex]\begin{align}0&=-400t+3500 \\ t&=\frac{3500}{400} \\ &=8.75 \end{align}[/latex]

The x-intercept is 8.75 weeks. Because this represents the input value when the output will be zero, we could say that Emily will have no money left after 8.75 weeks.

When modeling any real-life scenario with functions, there is typically a limited domain over which that model will be valid—almost no trend continues indefinitely. Here the domain refers to the number of weeks. In this case, it doesn’t make sense to talk about input values less than zero. A negative input value could refer to a number of weeks before she saved $3,500, but the scenario discussed poses the question once she saved $3,500 because this is when her trip and subsequent spending starts. It is also likely that this model is not valid after the x-intercept, unless Emily will use a credit card and goes into debt. The domain represents the set of input values, so the reasonable domain for this function is [latex]0\le t\le 8.75[/latex].

In the above example, we were given a written description of the situation. We followed the steps of modeling a problem to analyze the information. However, the information provided may not always be the same. Sometimes we might be provided with an intercept. Other times we might be provided with an output value. We must be careful to analyze the information we are given, and use it appropriately to build a linear model.

Using a Given Intercept to Build a Model

Some real-world problems provide the y-intercept, which is the constant or initial value. Once the y-intercept is known, the x-intercept can be calculated. Suppose, for example, that Hannah plans to pay off a no-interest loan from her parents. Her loan balance is $1,000. She plans to pay $250 per month until her balance is $0. The y-intercept is the initial amount of her debt, or $1,000. The rate of change, or slope, is–$250 per month. We can then use the slope-intercept form and the given information to develop a linear model.

[latex]\begin{align}f\left(x\right)&=mx+b \\ &=-250x+1000 \end{align}[/latex]

Now we can set the function equal to 0, and solve for x to find the x-intercept.

[latex]\begin{gathered}0=-250x+1000 \\ 1000=250x \\ 4=x \\ x=4 \end{gathered}[/latex]

The x-intercept is the number of months it takes her to reach a balance of $0. The x-intercept is 4 months, so it will take Hannah four months to pay off her loan.

Using a Given Input and Output to Build a Model

Many real-world applications are not as direct as the ones we just considered. Instead they require us to identify some aspect of a linear function. We might sometimes instead be asked to evaluate the linear model at a given input or set the equation of the linear model equal to a specified output.

How To: Given a word problem that includes two pairs of input and output values, use the linear function to solve a problem.

  1. Identify the input and output values.
  2. Convert the data to two coordinate pairs.
  3. Find the slope.
  4. Write the linear model.
  5. Use the model to make a prediction by evaluating the function at a given x value.
  6. Use the model to identify an x value that results in a given y value.
  7. Answer the question posed.

Example 1: Using a Linear Model to Investigate a Town’s Population

A town’s population has been growing linearly. In 2004 the population was 6,200. By 2009 the population had grown to 8,100. Assume this trend continues.

  1. Predict the population in 2013.
  2. Identify the year in which the population will reach 15,000.

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A company sells doughnuts. They incur a fixed cost of $25,000 for rent, insurance, and other expenses. It costs $0.25 to produce each doughnut.

  1. Write a linear model to represent the cost C of the company as a function of x, the number of doughnuts produced.
  2. Find and interpret the y-intercept.

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A city’s population has been growing linearly. In 2008, the population was 28,200. By 2012, the population was 36,800. Assume this trend continues.

  1. Predict the population in 2014.
  2. Identify the year in which the population will reach 54,000.

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Using a Diagram to Model a Problem

It is useful for many real-world applications to draw a picture to gain a sense of how the variables representing the input and output may be used to answer a question. To draw the picture, first consider what the problem is asking for. Then, determine the input and the output. The diagram should relate the variables. Often, geometrical shapes or figures are drawn. Distances are often traced out. If a right triangle is sketched, the Pythagorean Theorem relates the sides. If a rectangle is sketched, labeling width and height is helpful.

Example 2: Using a Diagram to Model Distance Walked

Anna and Emanuel start at the same intersection. Anna walks east at 4 miles per hour while Emanuel walks south at 3 miles per hour. They are communicating with a two-way radio that has a range of 2 miles. How long after they start walking will they fall out of radio contact?

Q & A

Should I draw diagrams when given information based on a geometric shape?

Yes. Sketch the figure and label the quantities and unknowns on the sketch.

Example 3: Using a Diagram to Model Distance between Cities

There is a straight road leading from the town of Westborough to Agritown 30 miles east and 10 miles north. Partway down this road, it junctions with a second road, perpendicular to the first, leading to the town of Eastborough. If the town of Eastborough is located 20 miles directly east of the town of Westborough, how far is the road junction from Westborough?

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There is a straight road leading from the town of Timpson to Ashburn 60 miles east and 12 miles north. Partway down the road, it junctions with a second road, perpendicular to the first, leading to the town of Garrison. If the town of Garrison is located 22 miles directly east of the town of Timpson, how far is the road junction from Timpson?

Building Systems of Linear Models

Figure 6

Real-world situations including two or more linear functions may be modeled with a system of linear equations. Remember, when solving a system of linear equations, we are looking for points the two lines have in common. Typically, there are three types of answers possible.

How To: Given a situation that represents a system of linear equations, write the system of equations and identify the solution.

  1. Identify the input and output of each linear model.
  2. Identify the slope and y-intercept of each linear model.
  3. Find the solution by setting the two linear functions equal to another and solving for x, or find the point of intersection on a graph.

Example 4: Building a System of Linear Models to Choose a Truck Rental Company

Jamal is choosing between two truck-rental companies. The first, Keep on Trucking, Inc., charges an up-front fee of $20, then 59 cents a mile. The second, Move It Your Way, charges an up-front fee of $16, then 63 cents a mile1. When will Keep on Trucking, Inc. be the better choice for Jamal?

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