The ABC’s of Mathematics

Mary Bond (May 2021)

Name a famous living mathematician. 

How about a mathematician from the past century? Hmmm, let’s not select Einstein. I would categorize him as a brilliant physicist who employed complicated mathematics. 

What about a mathematician from any point in history? 

As a math teacher, these are questions I like to ask my students. I was never asked these questions in high school, but it occurs to me that I was familiar with many famous figures in almost every other area of study – authors, artists, politicians, scientists, etc. 

It wasn’t until after high school that I began to appreciate the contributions of various scholars to the world of mathematics. I remember creating a PowerPoint presentation about a mathematician while I was in college in the late 1990s. I searched the word “mathematician” on the World Wide Web to locate a .jpg that might look nice on a slide. You can imagine the typical picture: an older white guy with glasses, a button down collared blue shirt, and a pocket protector. 

As it turns out, the history of mathematics is deliciously scandalous. And while there were plenty of talented older white guys (especially in the time before pocket protectors,) there were also (and continue to be) women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, among others. Many of the interesting stories surrounding these scholars and their contributions to the world of mathematics are intertwined with the historical context, the direction the world was taking at the time of their individual epiphanies, and the boldness of their ideas. 

For years now, I have been assigning a project for my students to give presentations on individuals who have contributed to the field of mathematics. I encourage students to do some research and choose any person of interest to them. I provide them with a list of mathematicians who I think are fascinating personally and professionally, just in case they get stuck. After they have individually researched their scholars, each student has an opportunity to speak to the rest of the class about the contributions of his/her/their chosen mathematician. We include each mathematician at the appropriate place on a digital timeline maintained by the class. Then the class works together to investigate what, exactly, was going on in the world at the time? How did this particular mathematical journey arise out of the politics, science, or social dynamic of the day? At the end of the project, there are culminating deliverables about each mathematician. I have had students create artwork, write poems or raps, or design a mathematical “family tree.” 

The project appeals to me because… well, because it appeals to the students. And I’m pretty sure I know why. 

First, the autonomy to choose your own person of interest to study, and the format that your final deliverable will take, is inspiring. Students take ownership. By the time their presentations are scheduled, they can hardly wait to share the things they have learned about the individuals they have chosen. 

Second, the students enjoy the sense of competence that comes with being the expert in the room. By the time the students present, they know more about the mathematicians than anyone else on campus. The students teach me an incredible amount about the world from this one assignment – every year, without fail. 

Fortunately, a current Google search on “mathematician” images returns a wider array of faces staring back at me. I believe we should continue to pursue these important questions with our math students, all the while incorporating the basic psychological needs that nurture intrinsic motivation – autonomy, belonging, and competence – into our discussions. And if you find yourself with a few minutes to spare, check out the history of Hypatia, or Turing, or al-Khwarizmi. It may serve to modify the image you think of when you hear the word “mathematician.”