Bringing Historical Mathematicians Into Your Classroom

Ask your pupils to name a famous mathematician and they will probably say Pythagoras, or maybe Isaac Newton or Einstein at a push.  Most pupils will be unable to name a single female mathematician, and some will be unable to name any famous mathematicians at all. 

Does this matter, and should you make the effort to introduce famous mathematicians to your pupils? 

Make Maths Human

English Literature is stuffed full of famous authors, and pupils get to know and love superstars like J.K.Rowling and J.R.R.Tolkein.  Introducing famous mathematicians can bring a human side to mathematics – it shows that maths is done by people rather than robots.

It Doesn’t Matter That The Maths Is Hard 

It doesn’t matter that only a handful of people understand Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. What is more interesting to pupils is that he spent six years in total secrecy battling to prove one of the most difficult proofs known to the world. He is the mathematical equivalent of an Antarctic explorer, be amazed and inspired – you don’t necessarily need to understand every detail.

Role Models

Pupils dream about being footballers because they can visualise who they are.  Most pupils have never seen a professional mathematician. Inspire your pupils by showing them a diverse range of mathematicians, both modern and historical. Bring mathematicians from industry into your classroom. Show your pupils that maths has always fascinated people from ancient times to the modern day. 

Someone Had To Discover The Maths! 

Many pupils think that maths has always existed – etched onto tablets of stone since time immemorial. Introducing famous mathematicians can bring home the fact that mathematical knowledge is constantly evolving – there is more maths out there which is still to be discovered. 

The Power Of Stories

Some of the stories are incredible, heroic and even bizarre. Galois was shot in a duel, Ramanujan was an Indian genius who came from obscurity and Katherine Johnson put rockets into space at a time when America was racially segregated. These stories are sure to stick in the minds of your pupils and make maths come alive. 

Famous Mathematicians – The Low Effort Way

Introducing famous mathematicians to your pupils doesn’t need to take a lot of time. Include them in starter activities, drop them into conversation, run an end of term poster competition. Before you know it, your pupils will be familiar with some of the famous people of mathematics.  It really doesn’t need to take a lot of effort. On the other hand, you could go to town and spend the day teaching dressed as your favourite mathematician from history…the choice is yours.

Further Reading

IMA Maths Careers Website – don’t forget to include some more down to earth role models as well as the mathematical superstars. 
https://www.mathscareers.org.uk/career-profiles/

Five famous female mathematicians – here are 5 to start off with – then get digging to find some more.
https://www.mathscareers.org.uk/article/five-famous-female-mathematicians/

Maths is good for you – History of mathematics for young mathematicians 
http://www.mathsisgoodforyou.com/index.htm

Mactutor History of Mathematics Archive – more in-depth biographies of mathematicians 
https://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/