The Mathematicians Project

I first learned about The Mathematicians Project from Annie Perkins at Twitter Math Camp in 2016. I finally got around to doing it with my students this year. I start class once a week by talking about a mathematician from an underrepresented background. I find an interesting mathematician, throw 2-3 slides together with some fun images, share for a few minutes, and take questions. It’s been a ton of fun! I recommend giving it a try. Annie’s page has a long list of mathematicians. The tagline is “not just white dudes” and the list is sorted by identity. I found Wikipedia and Google Image searches work well to find some useful info and pictures. Doing an image search for “moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces” while learning about Maryam Mirzakhani was a ton of fun.

I think it took me so long to start doing this with my students because I’m very protective of class time, and I didn’t see this as “doing math.” It’s still worth doing because it impacts my students’ perceptions of who does (and doesn’t) do math. Those perceptions influence their learning as much as their grasp of logarithms. And the conversations led to more mathematical curiosity and rabbit holes to explore.

I found it useful to think through why I am choosing to emphasize mathematicians from underrepresented backgrounds. Why not include some old dead white dudes? They did plenty of interesting math. My goal is to undermine deficit narratives about who does math. If a cis straight white male student in my class doesn’t see a mathematician who looks like him in my class, there are plenty of other messages in math classes and in the world telling that student that he can be a mathematician if he wants to. But other students get the opposite message, that math isn’t for people who look like them. My goal is to undermine that narrative by giving counterexamples to societal messages. There are plenty of mathematicians to go around, but some don’t often have their stories told. Those are the stories I want to share.

Here are three things I’ve learned:

  • I better understand the biases that have shaped mathematics. There are lots of white dude mathematicians; I knew that. But I underestimated how hard it would be to find information about women of color mathematicians. I’ve found plenty of white female mathematicians, plenty of men of color mathematicians, but women of color have required more effort to learn about. This both reflects the biases that prevent people from becoming mathematicians, and the biases in whose stories get told.
  • The Mathematicians Project is about expanding student conceptions of who does mathematics, but it can also expand student conceptions of what it means to do mathematics. I’ve shared about Vi Hart, who makes playful videos about mathematics and creates mathematical artwork, and Artur Avila, who won a bet for proving something no one else could figure out. Sharing less conventional mathematics can help students to see more different ways someone can be a mathematician.
  • Mathematicians don’t have to be famous. Becky recently shared this paper by Federico Ardila-Mantilla with me. In it, Federico shares new ideas in optimizing object movement that could make robot arms more efficient. But he also discusses the ways that math can act as a tool for good or evil, unpacking a choice by Dallas Police to use a robot to kill a suspect. Federico asks moral questions and puts math research and Black Lives Matter in tension. These types of stories are worth telling as much as pioneering mathematicians from decades or centuries ago.

What should students learn in math class? They should learn math, of course. But the discipline of mathematics is not static. By making conscious choices to push at the boundaries of our discipline, I have an opportunity to help students see not just what is, but the potential of what could be. What could be is a discipline of mathematics that is more inclusive and broader than what we have now. That might not mean eliminating what exists, but it definitely means heading in new directions. The Mathematicians Project is one tiny way I can model what a search for new directions looks like in my class.

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