A Short History of Math Activity

It’s close to start of another school year, and I find myself thinking about what I should focus upon during the first few weeks of school this year.  I always spend time discussing mindset and the “Power of YET” with my students.  I love to show the Week of Inspirational Math videos and run a few of the Week of Inspirational Math activities from my favorite resource, youcubed.org.  I survey my students about their feelings about working in groups so that we can share, and then we embark on some activities to help everyone learn and practice how to work in groups.  I also start some number talks. (If these topics sound like they are inspired by Jo Boaler, they most certainly are!)

In comes the topic of History of Math.  Geometry textbooks rarely mention Euclid’s Elements, let alone any other interesting tidbits about the history of math.  So every year, I start with a small activity to help students put the subject of geometry in perspective.   Where did the topics in our textbook come from?  Did people always use the π symbol to represent pi?  Did humans always use the decimal point?  What accomplishments have women made in the field of mathematics?

It’s not easy to introduce the history of math in one class period.  Sure, I could take longer, but I do lots of activities and 3D printing that also take time later in the year.  So for me, it’s a matter of hitting the highlights and inspiring students to learn more on their own.  I’ve tried lecture (boring!), web quests (just didn’t work for me and took longer than I hoped), and interactive worksheets (they were OK, but not very inspiring).  This year, I have a new idea:  I created some classroom sets of history of math timeline cards.

The front of each card has a history fact that is interesting or important about the development of geometry or other mathematics.  On the back of each card, hidden from the students by the card protector, is a (sometimes approximate) date of the fact.  My plan is to ask my students to work in groups to try to put the facts in chronological order.   When they finish, they can look at the back of the card to see the actual date.  We can discuss what they got right, what they got wrong, what surprised them, and what other facts they would like to know.  Homework for the night will be a quick reflection on the activity (which I have not made yet).

When I posted pictures of the cards I made on Twitter, I received some requests to share them.  I dutifully found the source of each fact so that I could update the cards with sources.  I also changed the pictures to make sure that the pictures I used were either in the public domain or had a creative commons license.  Hopefully I didn’t forget anything!  Here is a PDF of my history of math timeline cards.

Here’s how to make the cards:

  1. Print the cards (color is nice, but not required).  Each row has three columns.  The first two columns are the front and back of the card.  The last row is the source of the image, which is just FYI.
  2. Cut out the first two columns of each row, then fold the card on the vertical column line so that it has a front and back.  Just discard the last column of the card, unless you want to fold it on the inside of the card.
  3. Put each card in a card protector (I bought these on Amazon). If you can see the date on the back of the card through the card protector, just slip a piece of cardboard (or these from Amazon) in the card protector.   After sorting the cards, students can temporarily lift this cardboard to check the date.
  4. You’re ready to go!

If you don’t have the budget for card protectors, you can just fold and laminate the cards (or fold and tape them closed) and ask students not to look at the date on the back until they finish sorting.

I am sure I will decide to alter this activity after my students work through it in August, but learning what worked and what didn’t work is often my favorite part!


Update:  See my post about what I would change with the activity next time, which includes some new cards I’ll be adding to reflect the important contributions from mathematicians in other parts of the world.




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