The Mathematician Project: Student Edition

Easily the most common question I get about the Mathematician Project is “Have you ever had students research the mathematicians?” I had my middle schoolers do it once, but it was only mildly successful. Having seen how many people seem to be doing just this (the number of hits the Mathematician Project blogpost gets from Google Classroom is nuts) however encouraged me to try again with my high schoolers this year. The results were much better, although, of course I now have many ideas for how I can improve for next year. The overall result, however, was great. Kids were proud and my face hurt from smiling as they presented to each other.

Below are the instructions students received (word doc Mathematician project) Much of the wording shamelessly stolen from Jonathan Osters (@callmejosters).

  • Math teachers/math students tend to only discuss white male mathematicians. We need to broaden our definition of who mathematicians are.
We all subscribe to multiple identities. For example, Ms. Perkins identifies as a teacher, a sister, a girlfriend, an aunt, a female, white, cisgender, a huge math nerd, and a bicyclist. Some identities you have are identities of privilege, indicating that society has generally favored those identities over others. Some of your identities could be called oppressed identities, indicating that this identity has not been favored historically in our society. Many people have parts of their identity that are privileged, and parts of their identity that are oppressed. This idea of having both privileged and oppressed identities one aspect of intersectionality.
Assignment: Take some time (approximately an hour) to research a mathematician (you can start with the list Ms. Perkins provides you with, but you are by no means restricted to that list. The internet is a wide and marvelous place with lots of information) The only rule here is that the mathematician you select must have at least one oppressed identity. You will use this research to prepare a single slide about that mathematician like Ms. Perkins has done all year.
Your slide must include:
  • A picture of your mathematician
  • Name
  • Date of birth, and if applicable, date of death
  • Brief biography (where they are from, do they have family, any interesting stories)
  • Mathematical accomplishments (awards, papers, discoveries)
  • Mathematical area of expertise (What kind of math do they focus on?)
  • Any other information about their personal life that you can find.
Presentation:  You will present your mathematician to a small group of other students on our finals day. Your presentation will be much like Ms. Perkins’s presentations. You should plan for it to be about 3-5 minutes long. If you need to leave early, you can either email your slide to Ms. Perkins with a brief write up, or you can arrange to make your presentation to Ms. Perkins before you leave.

The results were pretty fantastic. I put no restrictions on who students could research as long as they had some sort of oppressed identity. I did not make it so everyone chose someone different, which led to a lot of duplicates, but in the end, students researched 63 different mathematicians, including 26 that were not on my list!

Here are a few stand out slides and a video (shared with permission of the student) of one presentation. Two students asked to present to the whole class, which I was happy to accommodate.





Here is the list of Mathematicians students researched. I’ll be updating my Mathematicians post with links to information about them over the next few weeks.

Abraham Adolf Frankel
Ada Lovelace
Alan Turing
Alicia Boole Stotte
Annie Easley
Antanas Mockus
Benjamin Bannker
Caroline Series
Charles Reason
Clifford V Johnson
David Blackwell
Diana Taimina
Diego Rodriguez
Dorothy Vaughn
Elbert Frank Cox
Emilie Du Chatelet
Emmy Noether
Evelyn Boyd Granville
Fern Hunt
Francis William
Grace Hopper
Hee Oh
Hoang Xuan Sinh
Ingrid Daubechies
Izabella Laba
Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr
Joan Clark
John Nash
John Urschel
Julia Robinson
Kate Adebola Okikiolu
Katherine Johnson
Kathleen Ollerenshaw
Kelly Miller
Kunhiko Kodaira
Lillian K Bradley
Mae Jemison
Manjul Bhargava
Maria Chudnovky
Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Marjorie Lee Browne
Mary Jackson
Mina Rees
Maryam Mirzakhani
Monica Clapp
Muhammed Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizimi
Nina Bari
Olga Ladyzhenkaya
Robert Eugene Megginson
Ron Buckmire
Ros Chandra Bose
Rudranath Capildeo
Samuel Gitler Hammer
Scott Williams
Shafi Goldwasser
Shakuntala Devi
Shigehumi Mori
Shing Tung Yau
Sofia Kovalevskaya
Sophie Germain
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Terence Tao
Wu Wen Tsun

If you’ve been following the Mathematicians Project, you may notice there are a couple of “white dudes” on the list – but all adhered to the requirement of having some oppressed identity (specifically Jewish, gay, schizophrenic).

What really got my attention is how many of my students chose someone with whom they identified strongly. I’m not surprised, but I was very happy to see it. For example, one student with a significant hearing disability found a mathematician, Kathleen Ollerenshaw, that shared that disability. I’m ashamed to admit that she’d mentioned it several times this year and I jut hadn’t gotten around to it, so I was so happy she found someone. Other students sought out mathematicians from their home countries, or with similar histories to them. Here are a couple (totally unscientific, just based on my knowledge of students and how they spoke of themselves or presented throughout the school year I’ve had them as students) stats:

  • 78% of females and 77% of males researched a mathematician of their same gender.
  • 85% of Black or African students researched a Black or African mathematician.
  • All 3 of my Indian students researched Indian mathematicians.
  • The most popular mathematician, with 7 students researching him, was David Blackwell. Shortly behind him was Emmy Noether, with 6 students.

A bit on the Process Itself

I was… okay with how the process went. There really wasn’t enough time for everyone to present to everyone, although in the future I could certainly make time for it. I did not make the research process particularly rigorous, and I think in the future I would like to be more rigorous about it, asking students to cite sources and the like, but a I don’t always do that when I do my presentations, I didn’t pursue it this time around. I would also like to have students react to their peers presentations somehow (beyond just being a polite audience).

The feeling in the room when students presented though… was awesome. Kids got so into sharing their mathematicians! I counted one student using the phrase “lit” at least 7 times. There was just a feeling of great pride as students got to find someone they were excited about to share with their peers. Definitely a bit of bragging going on.

I will absolutely continue to do this in the future and if you are one of the teachers who has done this in your classroom I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND HOW IT’S GOING. Please share!

Author: Ms. P

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

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