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Project Mathematics

Karen Michalowicz, reviewer

Project Mathematics! Early History of Mathematics, Tom M. Apostol , 2000. Workbook: 30pp., paper $4.95; Videotape $29.95, Project Mathematics! California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Blvd., Pasadena , CA 91125, (800) 514-BOOK, www.


Project Mathematics! Early History of Mathematics is the tenth in the Project Mathematics! Videotape Modules Series. The videotape is 30 minutes long and is accompanied by a Program Guide and Workbook. The presentation covers some of the early history of mathematics from 5000 BCE to the seventeenth century CE. 

I used the videotape with my students after reading a complimentary review (Mathematics Teacher, Feb., 2000). I had high expectations. However, I did not share the other reviewer’s enthusiasm for the videotape.   I first previewed the entire program. Then with the careful planning as recommended in the review, I used the videotape with my high school geometry classes and in a graduate mathematics methods class. For years I have employed various videotapes in my teaching. I have found that rather than expending valuable teaching time for showing the whole tape, I show selected snippets from it. Thus, I can highlight a particular concept or topic. My students found the portion of what I showed them on the Early History of Mathematics  to be interesting. In particular, the computer enhancements used to demonstrate the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem were worth while and highly recommended. However, all my student viewers found the background music-track to be distracting. My adolescent honors geometry students began to play “Guess the Tune” during the playing.  

As a teacher, I believe there is a need for good history of mathematics videotapes. The videotapes produced by the London Open University are excellent but not readily available to many of us. The Early History of Mathematics videotape does not measure up to these. In my opinion, the videotape covers a broad period of mathematics history too superficially. Thus, important events are not even mentioned. For example, when the videotape briefly addressed algebra, it did not refer to Diophantus (although he is mentioned in the Program Guide), nor Hypatia, or even Al- Khwarizmi. Rather, Omar Khayyam was the only mathematician mentioned. At least, if there were a brief mention of these three, the videotape would have included two men to whom the title of “Father of Algebra” has been bestowed and a woman. The tape is devoid of any female contributions to the history of mathematics. Further, there were a few historical inaccuracies, for example, when our number system was described as “originating from the Arabs”; however, later in the tape it was referred to as the “Hindu-Arabic Numbers”.  

In my opinion, the strength of the videotape was not in the history it presents, but in its computer animations. It can be a useful tool to the teacher if the teacher is knowledgeable about the mathematics history, and does very careful planning.  I leave it to the viewer to decide how worthwhile it is in the classroom.

Karen Dee Michalowicz, The Langley School, McLean, VA, Adjunct Faculty, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 





Karen Michalowicz, reviewer, "Project Mathematics," Loci (September 2008)