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The Institute on the History of Mathematics and its use in Teaching

A report by Walter Sizer

When I first saw in FOCUS a description of the proposed Institute in the History of Mathematics and Its Use in Teaching, I thought it was an ideal opportunity for someone like me. I had taught a history of mathematics course several times, yet had no formal training in the subject. I had read quite a lot in the field and attended a few history of mathematics conferences, but I still felt there were holes in my background. Further, I would benefit from hearing of the experiences of others with courses like the one I teach.

The Institute (funded by the NSF and run under MAA supervision) exceeded my expectations. It consisted of two three-week sessions a year apart. Both sessions were set up and run by Victor Katz, Fred Rickey, and Steven Schot, who presented material and led discussion sessions. In addition, each year we had several guest lecturers who were for the most part excellent: Ronald Calinger, Judy Grabiner, Helena Pycior, David Pengelley, Ubi D'Ambrosio, Karen Parshall, Uta Merzbach, Judy Green, and James Donaldson.

A second thrust of the Institute was to get participants to read carefully and discuss original sources in mathematics. Thus we examined selected writings of Euler, Archimedes, Leibniz and Gauss, to mention just a few. This reading of the original great works taught us of the importance of looking at sources to see just what was (and was not) said and how it was presented.

During the first year participants were required to help in team research projects involving some aspect of mathematics history; in my case, I teamed up with two other participants to do a very brief and sketchy survey of calculus texts from 1736 to 1942. Actually doing the research was a very interesting exercise, and hearing the reports of other research projects provided insight into a variety of historical topics.

Second year participants were asked to make brief presentations on how they had used the history of mathematics in their teaching the past year. Again, listening to the variety of reports gave participants ideas they could take back to their own classrooms.

Institute participants have been made more aware of electronic resources and, reluctant or not, are using the internet to get information and to ask and answer questions. In my case, this has been an added benefit of the Institute.

When I teach the history of Mathematics again this fall I will make many modifications based on things I picked up at the Institute. The changes I anticipate now will be changes in content and emphasis, although the Institute also encourages teachers to examine the ways they are teaching. Changes in my style are apt to evolve more slowly. As I teach other courses I am also more aware of the historical background of the topics, and I will be placing more emphasis on this area too because of my participation in the Institute.

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