How to Enact the Mathematician Project

  • How to Enact the Mathematician Project

    By Annie Perkins, posted September 26, 2016 –

    In my first Blogarithm post, I wrote about the inception of the Mathematician Project and why I believe it has been a positive change in my classroom. This post will detail the mechanics of enacting the project. In future posts, I will share what the project has taught me about my students and how it is evolving beyond its original scope.

    When I explain this project to colleagues, I am inevitably asked how I can manage to do all this extra research on top of my regular teaching schedule. The answer is that it’s really not that much more work. I do most of the research for a new mathematician on the Internet late on one school night, and it rarely exceeds 15 minutes. Much of the information I need is on Wikipedia. My college major was history, so I can say with great confidence that this work is merely scratching the surface, but it serves my purposes. My students don’t care about footnotes; they do care about interesting stories and people they can relate to. For those who are interested, I have started housing the research on my blog, with links to Wikipedia pages or news articles about mathematicians. 

    The information I search for is pretty general, but there are a few specific things I always seek out: 

    • Name

    • Date of birth

    • Date of death, if applicable

    • Brief biography (home, family, interesting stories)

    • Mathematical accomplishments (awards, papers, discoveries)

    • Mathematical area of expertise

    I then compile the information into a single slide that I use during my brief presentation. Here is a sample slide that I have used with students.

    Perkins MTMS Art 1

    As you can see, the tone is quite informal, and the words are mostly there to serve as a visual for my students and a reminder to me of what I want to say. My talk about Katherine Johnson might go like this: 

    Class, this is Katherine Johnson, and she’s amazing. She’s an African-American woman who grew up in West Virginia. Because she worked very hard in school and was interested in learning, she finished high school at the age of 14. From there, she went on to West Virginia State College, where she took every single math course they had available. They had to add more courses, just for her! 

    After college, she taught for a while, and then she moved to NASA. You might not know this, but before the computers that you and I use were available, NASA had to use people as computers. Just like my title is “teacher,” their title was “computer.” Katherine Johnson was one such computer. However, because she was such an accomplished mathematician, she rose in the ranks of NASA. Some of you may have heard about John Glenn; he was the first astronaut to orbit Earth. He was only able to do that because Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory. She’s the one who told the rocket where to go. She also calculated the flight plan for Apollo 11. She’s kind of a big deal. 

    In 2015, President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award that the president can bestow on a civilian. 

    There’s a movie coming out about Katherine Johnson and other computers this year. I’m really excited to go see it. Are there any questions about her?

    It is common for students to ask if the mathematician was married or had a family (this goes for both male and female mathematicians). It is also common for students to ask what this individual was like as a young person.

    The entire presentation takes about 5 minutes. My students frequently point to it as one of their favorite parts of my class.

    Ed. note: The movie that Perkins referenced is called Hidden Figures and has a January 13, 2017, release date.

    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’s Keewaydin campus in Minneapolis. This year, she will be teaching tenth grade at Southwest High School. She blogs at, and you can reach her on twitter @anniekperkins.