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Solving Exponential Decay Functions: Closing the Digital Divide


Exponential functions tell the stories of explosive change. The two types of exponential functions are exponential growth and exponential decay. Four variables - percent change, time, the amount at the beginning of the time period, and the amount at the end of the time period - play roles in exponential functions. This article focuses on how to use an exponential decay function to find a, the amount at the beginning of the time period.

Exponential Decay

Exponential decay: the change that occurs when an original amount is reduced by a consistent rate over a period of time

Here's an exponential decay function:

y = a(1-b)x

  • y: Final amount remaining after the decay over a period of time
  • a: The original amount
  • x: Time
  • The decay factor is (1-b).
  • The variable, b, is percent decrease in decimal form.

Purpose of Finding the Original Amount

If you are reading this article, then you are probably ambitious. Six years from now, perhaps you want to pursue an undergraduate degree at Dream University. With a $120,000 price tag, Dream University evokes financial night terrors. After sleepless nights, you, Mom, and Dad meet with a financial planner. Your parents' bloodshot eyes clear up when the planner reveals an investment with an 8% growth rate that can help your family reach the $120,000 target. Study hard. If you and your parents invest $75,620.36 today, then Dream University will become your reality.

How to Solve for the Original Amount of an Exponential Function

This function describes the exponential growth of the investment:

120,000 = a(1 +.08)6

  • 120,000: Final amount remaining after 6 years
  • .08: Yearly growth rate
  • 6: The number of years for the investment to grow
  • a: The initial amount that your family invested

Hint: Thanks to the symmetric property of equality, 120,000 = a(1 +.08)6 is the same as a(1 +.08)6 = 120,000. (Symmetric property of equality: If 10 + 5 = 15, then 15 = 10 +5.)

If you prefer to rewrite the equation with the constant, 120,000, on the right of the equation, then do so.

a(1 +.08)6 = 120,000

Granted, the equation doesn't look like a linear equation (6a = $120,000), but it's solvable. Stick with it!

a(1 +.08)6 = 120,000

Be careful: Do not solve this exponential equation by dividing 120,000 by 6. It's a tempting math no-no.

1. Use Order of Operations to simplify.

a(1 +.08)6 = 120,000
(1.08)6 = 120,000 (Parenthesis)
(1.586874323) = 120,000 (Exponent)

2. Solve by Dividing

a(1.586874323) = 120,000
(1.586874323)/(1.586874323) = 120,000/(1.586874323)
1a = 75,620.35523
= 75,620.35523

The original amount to invest is approximately $75,620.36.

3. Freeze -you're not done yet. Use Order of Operations to check your answer.

120,000 = a(1 +.08)6
120,000 = 75,620.35523(1 +.08)6
120,000 = 75,620.35523(1.08)6 (Parenthesis)
120,000 = 75,620.35523(1.586874323) (Exponent)
120,000 = 120,000 (Multiplication)


Use the information about Woodforest to complete Exercises 1-5.

Woodforest, Texas, a suburb of Houston, is determined to close the digital divide in its community. A few years ago, community leaders discovered that their citizens were computer illiterate: they did not have access to the Internet and were shut out of the information superhighway. The leaders established World Wide Web on Wheels, a set of mobile computer stations.

World Wide Web on Wheels has achieved its goal of only 100 computer illiterate citizens in Woodforest. Community leaders studied the monthly progress of World Wide Web on Wheels. According to the data, the decline of computer illiterate citizens can be described by the following function:

100 = a(1 - .12)10

  1. How many people are computer illiterate 10 months after the inception of World Wide Web on Wheels?

  2. Does this function represent exponential decay or exponential growth?

  3. What is the monthly rate of change?

  4. How many people were computer illiterate 10 months ago, at the inception of World Wide Web on Wheels?

  5. If these trends continue, how many people will be computer illiterate 15 months after the inception of World Wide Web on Wheels?
Solutions to above.
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