The history of mathematics can be an overlooked topic of exploration especially in primary schools, and a missed opportunity to teach students about the diverse backgrounds of mathematicians and the essential role that diverse cultures have played in developing the technologies we have today.
Students may know about the original greats, such as Pythagoras or Archimedes, yet many individuals throughout history have played a role in making mathematics the field that it is today.
Looking at math through the lens of history and culture enriches our understanding of the field of mathematics. Recognizing and appreciating diversity in the mathematics field that reflects diversity in our mathematics classrooms can help more students see themselves represented and pursue careers in mathematics!
The celebration of Black History Month throughout the month of February is an opportunity to integrate the topics of math history and a celebration of the accomplishments of Black mathematicians in math class. Here are some simple suggestions for activities you can use this month, or any time of year.
Play an ancient math game
There is some evidence that the modern game we know as mancala has roots in Ethiopia, dating back to the 6th or 7th century. A predecessor of our modern game was played in ancient Egypt. In mancala, a two-person game of strategy, players try to win by collecting all the game pieces, which may be stones, beads, marbles, or even seeds through a process of distributing the game pieces across shallow holes in a game board or playing surface. Delve into the history of the game and invite students in your math class to pair off and challenge each other to a game using a bought or crafted version.
Create an historical timeline of major contributions in math
Choose a timeframe or a theme and invite your students to explore or construct a historical timeline about mathematics! Depending on the age of your students and your available time, you might invite them to conduct research and contribute to the timeline as a whole class, small group, or independently. Once complete, your timeline is an excellent mathematical resource and reference. Students can use it as they practice their Notice and Wonder skills by discussing what they observe and any patterns or questions that arise.
Profile a mathematician
Black History Month is the perfect time to profile African American mathematicians in the history of mathematics. Take the opportunity this February to learn something new alongside your students by diving into the rich history of math contributed by people of color. Doing so will inspire your students and reflect the diversity of the mathematics field. It is important for all students to see real people and real careers in math and STEM fields, which will help to instill in them the belief that they too can pursue a career and future in math, like these accomplished mathematical thinkers.
To get started, here is a free download that provides a list of mathematicians who can be easily researched, and some notable dates of their accomplishments. Use this to spark discussions and inspire students to do further research about people of color who have shaped our mathematics history and the students’ math education!
Celebrating history and culture in the math classroom can enrich our teaching of mathematics and our students understanding and appreciation of this essential subject. Black History Month is an opportunity to explore the backgrounds of mathematicians and the role that diverse cultures have played in developing today’s technologies throughout our history.