Illuminating Coordinate Geometry with Algebraic Symmetry

A symmetric polynomial is a polynomial in one or more variables in which swapping any pair of variables leaves the polynomial unchanged. For example, f(x, y, z) = xy +xz + yz is a symmetric polynomial. If we interchange the variables x and y, we obtain yx + yz + xz, which is the same as f(x, y, z); likewise, swapping x and z (or y and z) returns the original polynomial. These polynomials arise in many areas of mathematics, including Galois theory and combinatorics, but they are rarely taught in a high school curriculum. In this article, we describe an application of symmetric polynomials to a familiar problem in coordinate geometry, thus introducing this powerful tool in a context that is accessible to high school students.