Everyone does not have a passion to do mathematics. However an opened minded person can develop an appreciation for mathematics. This article advocates using writing exercises to develop interest in mathematics.
In the recent article, Write About Mathematicians In Non-Major Courses, appearing in the November 2008 MAA FOCUS, Professor Karl-Dieter Crisman reports the effects of requiring his students to write about people who do mathematics.
He reported students became interested in the person about whom they chose to write. Further some gained helpful insights into their personal studies and formed a better attitude toward the mathematics.
In the words of the professor:
My experience is that essentially all students (often to my surprise) report that they learned something quite interesting about the individual they chose. … Most gratifying to me was that many students also seemed to gain real perspective about their own studies and future from learning about the challenges these real people faced in life, which promoted a better attitude toward mathematics in general by the end.
Recently I posted an article about Benjamin Bannecker. The intent of the article was to expose this self-taught mathematical talent to those who missed his story during their studies and readings. As I retraced Bannecker’s life, I felt I accompanied him while existing in a parallel world: observing the facts and stories of his life as they unfolded in my research.
In other words, Bannecker became a person to me. I felt I came to know him and I began to formulate his behavior and reactions to disputed things in his life. Often I found myself saying, “Bannecker wouldn’t do that.” And when he took bold political stances, I exhorted him with a “Right On Ben!“
As I learned more about Bannecker, my desire to understand his mathematical and scientific contributions grew. I dare say, I came to understand the effects of his moral, political, ethical and social life on his academic pursuits.
Professor Crisman observed a similar positive effect on his students’ attitudes. This effect suggests that writing about people who do mathematics can kindle appreciate for mathematics by identifying with its author.
Writing exercises are time consuming and keeping abreast of one’s school work leave little free time. Thus writing exercises are best undertaken during periods of light home assignments – for instance during long vacations or summers.
Write a three-page essay about a person who does mathematics. The essay should present some important facts about the person’s life and the student’s perspective about this individual. The students should support their feelings and further, highlight an application of his subject’s work.
Books to examine:
E. T. Bell Men of Mathematics
H. Midonick The Treasury if Mathematics
D. Campbell & J. C. Higgins MATHEMATICS: People, Problems, Results
Also see the works of Dirk Struik and Howard Eves.
Professor Crisman presented the following categories to help choose a writing assignemnt.
(Old) Greek Mathematicians: Pappus, Archimedes, Apollonius, Euclid, Zeno, Democritus, Pythagoras
Female Mathematicians: Emmy Nether, Julia Robinson, Karen Hollenbeck, Karen Smith, Sophie Germaine, Fan Chung, Ingrid Dubieties, Florence Nightingale
Non-Western Mathematicians: Ramanujan, Al-Khwarizimi, Omar Khayyam, Lui Hui, Brahmagupta, G. Shimura, H. Hironaka, the Rhind Papyrus, Plimpton 322
Mathematicians who died young or violently or may have had mental illness: Nash (not deceased yet), Ramanujan, Riemann, Erdos, Boltzmann, Cantor, Galois, Abel
Mathematicians who thought (well or poorly) about God: Pascal, Descartes, Galileo, Laplace, Kronecker, Kepler, Russell, Hardy, Euler, Riemann, Ramanujan, Erdos, Cauchy
“Mathematicians” primarily known for something else: Pascal, Descartes, Mersenne, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Pauli, Zeno, E. T. Bell, Stephen Wolfram, Charles Bell Jr., David Blackwell
Some influential 20 th century Mathematicians: David Blackwell, Von Neumann, Poincare, Emile Borel
For students who love to build models, consider assigning a three-page essay about Peaucellier’s Cell. The essay should introduce Captain Peaucellier and give an explanation of “the cell”, its importance and the writer’s perspective about Captain Peaucellier.
If a student finds no interests in the above suggestions, allow him to make his own writing choice.
Some useful websites: