How to Enact the Mathematician Project
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:
• Date of birth
• Date of death, if applicable
• Brief biography (home, family,
• 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.
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:
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!
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.
2015, President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the
highest award that the president can bestow on a civilian.
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.
note: The movie that Perkins referenced is called Hidden Figures and has a January 13, 2017, release date.
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 arbitrarilyclose.com, and you can reach her on twitter @anniekperkins.