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Combining Strands of Many Colors: Episodes from Medieval Islam for the Mathematics Classroom - Creating Classroom Activities

Author(s): 
Randy K. Schwartz (Schoolcraft College)

In my classes, I infuse the standard curriculum with a small number of historical and cross-cultural activities closely linked to traditional topics. The activities, which I developed and have used since 2001, take the form of written, self-paced lessons, or “modules.” The students begin the activity in class, working either individually or in small groups for about 30 minutes. They take the work home to complete it, and later submit it to me for grading and comments.

Each activity focuses on a mathematical technique used in the medieval Arab world. My students look at the cultural and historical context of the technique and its links to other methods. They explore the theory behind the technique, and they see how it is used to solve “real-world” problems, often including the type of problem that prompted its discovery.

The major goals of these activities are:

  • to encourage students to appreciate the contributions of many cultures and peoples
  • to enhance the appeal of mathematics lessons
  • to foster the understanding that mathematics is not merely a collection of abstract ideas, but is a product of people trying to solve practical problems
  • to round out students’ technical skills, and other skills and attitudes important for functioning in an interdependent world
  • to compensate for the Eurocentric bias of the standard mathematics curriculum.

Creating new instructional materials along these lines is challenging. Most of my students are very practical-minded young people who are training for positions in the business, health, and engineering professions. My approach has been to recast information so that it is comprehensible and appealing to them, while preserving the basic integrity of the mathematics, cultures, and histories involved. Based on my experience, I have formulated a five-point strategy for developing cross-cultural activities:

  1. Select interesting and appropriate applications.
  2. Streamline the discussion and modernize the notation found in the original sources.
  3. Explore each concept from a number of different perspectives.
  4. Guide the students from easier to more difficult tasks.
  5. Compare and contrast examples drawn from different cultures.

Much of the remainder of this article will be devoted to illustrating my five-point strategy by describing classroom activities that I have developed.

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