The Mathematician Project

  • The Mathematician Project

    By Annie Perkins, posted September 12, 2016 –


    Like many teachers, I want my students to see themselves as mathematicians. To that end, I define “mathematician” for them, and I try to name for them the moves they make that fit that definition. I vocally encourage them to adopt this identity. What I’ve found, however, is that “mathematician” is a harder sell to students than “writer,” “musician,” or “athlete.” I didn’t know how to address this reticence until sometime last winter, when a student’s question showed me what to do.

    I was giving a lecture on Pythagoras. Most of the class was giggling, having just learned that this mathematical giant was afraid of beans. Some of them were probably pleased that I was telling stories and not making them do math. One of my students, who rarely participated in class, raised his hand to ask a question. 

    “Yes?” I said, eagerly looking forward to engaging this hard-to-reach student.

    “Ms. Perkins,” he said, “Why do we always talk about white dudes?”

    I wasn’t prepared for this question. I should have been, but I wasn’t. I could have demurred. I could have said that we have better records of white men. I could have insisted that Pythagoras has earned our attention because of his accomplishments. I could have said, “Good point,” and moved on. I wanted to do some of those things. As a white woman who teaches students of color, I feel like I’m walking on unstable ground any time I talk to my students about race. 

    But my student’s question was an honest one, and it deserved an honest answer. I said that he had a really good point. We do always talk about “white dudes”: Pythagoras, Gauss, Bernoulli, Fibonacci, Turing, Euclid, Euler, and Newton, just to name a few. We might squeeze in Ramanujan and pat ourselves on the back for being so inclusive, but the truth is that we generally only talk about white, male mathematicians, and then we wonder why our not-white-male students engage so little in math class. 

    Knowing this particular student identified strongly with his Mexican heritage, I asked, “Would it matter to you if I showed you a Mexican mathematician?”

    He paused, got a weird look on his face, and responded with one of the most depressing questions I’ve ever heard: “Do you think there are any?” 

    I assured him that there were, but when he asked who they were, and I came up with nothing, his suspicions were confirmed. All the beliefs that I have about math and who can be a mathematician told me that this couldn’t possibly be true, but I had no evidence to the contrary for him. The fact that I didn’t know even the name of one Mexican mathematician, but I did know that Pythagoras was afraid of beans, spoke volumes about which mathematicians I valued.

    This encounter cut me to the core and made clear to me one of the reasons my students don’t see themselves as mathematicians. They have plenty of examples of writers, athletes, and musicians that look like they do, but not mathematicians.

    Thus began The Mathematician Project. That night, I researched a Mexican mathematician, Diego Rodriguez, and prepped a five-minute talk on him and what he had contributed to mathematics. My student was so excited that he stood up at the end and yelled, “Take that, white dudes!” He had found a role model, and for the rest of the year frequently talked about Rodriguez as a point of pride. 

    Since then, every Friday, I spend five to ten minutes introducing my students to a mathematician who is not a white male. If I ever forget, my students hound me. They have come to expect it, and the majority of my students have pointed to it as their favorite part of my class.

    The project has evolved over nearly a year and a half, and has had two important consequences:

    1. My students have mathematical role models that they identify with strongly.
    2. I have learned a lot about my students.

    The next three blog posts will detail how I went about this project, and I encourage you to consider doing something similar in your classroom.

    Perkins MTMS Au Pic Annie 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.