Extensions of the Mathematician Project

  • Extensions of the Mathematician Project

    By Annie Perkins, posted October 24, 2016 —

    Since enacting the Mathematician Project, I have received a large amount of feedback from students and colleagues with whom I have shared the idea. One question I consistently hear is this: “How are you reaching out to currently practicing mathematicians?” It’s true, students are more interested in current mathematicians than those who lived hundreds of years ago. Since the goal of the project is to get students to see themselves as mathematicians, it’s helpful when they can see what it would be like to be a mathematician today. 

    I have not yet been ambitious enough to invite practicing mathematicians into my classroom, but I have found and shared videos of mathematicians talking about themselves and their work. Last year, I shared one such video featuring Brazilian mathematician Artur Avila, after he won the Fields Medal. Students listened with rapt attention. Some commented later how interesting it was to hear Avila talk about his own work. I also found that students retained the information better. Several months later when I asked what they remembered from class, they discussed details from the video of Artur Avila. That information had stuck with them, whereas details from my verbal presentations were harder to recall.

    I have also leveraged Twitter as a network to find and talk with currently practicing mathematicians. When I surveyed students at the beginning of this school year about people they wanted to learn about, “Somali” was far and away the most common request. My Google search, however, didn’t yield much information. Thus, I turned to Twitter and was soon talking with Jama Musse Jama, who became one of our featured mathematicians. This choice was particularly satisfying for me because many of my students know far more about Somalia than I do, so while I taught them about Jama and his work, they taught me about the meaning of Jama identifying himself as being from Somaliland instead of Somalia. It was a mutual learning experience.

    I have asked students to research mathematicians on their own and have had mixed results. The biggest hang up seemed to be the specificity with which students sought their mathematician. Students who wanted a female mathematician delved deeply into the process, whereas students who wanted to research a mathematician who was “black, lived in Minnesota, had divorced parents, and started their work at a young age” struggled a lot. Those student choices yielded lots of good conversations between my students and myself because their mathematician requests tended to be a reflection of themselves. 

    I think that when I try the project again, I will spend more time preparing students for what they might find as they do their research or send them to my blog and ask them to choose a mathematician from that list. After all, it took me nearly five months to find a trans mathematician to share with students; my experience with that can be illuminating for students. It’s not that their specific mathematicians do not exist; it’s just a matter of how much effort they plan to spend finding them.

    I highly encourage you to try this project in your own classrooms. I am only six weeks into this school year, and students are already hounding me with “Which mathematician are we going to do on Friday?” I have stronger relationships with my new students because I have shown them that I value what they value. My students’ mathematical confidence has increased, and I enjoy my job more as a result of it. Yes, it takes more time but in actuality it only takes me fifteen minutes to research and five to ten minutes to present my findings in class. If you do try it, I hope you’ll reach out and share with me how it goes.


    Perkins MTMS Au PicAnnie Perkins teaches math in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For the past three years, she has taught seventh-grade and eighth-grade math at Lake Nokomis Community School–Keewaydin. This year she will be teaching tenth grade at Southwest High School. She blogs at arbitrarilyclose.com, and you can reach her on twitter @anniekperkins.