Of all the activities that can be used to historically enrich mathematics teaching and learning, one of the easiest and most fruitful is the use of student research projects. Students obtain a deeper understanding of the human and personal side of mathematics by researching the lives and works of individual mathematicians and/or groups of mathematicians. Identifying an individual name with a person who had a specific place and date of birth, a record of schooling, a participation in family life and an advocation to mathematics, helps demystify the subject. In many respects, mathematics was developed by ordinary men and women who through their persistence and special insights on the subject formulated the discipline we know today.
Reports on the lives and work of mathematicians can be very brief. See some of the samples given below. Such reports can either be oral or written, submitted as an individual or group project and shared with classmates. Many excellent mathematical biographies exists for student consultation for example: Lawrence Young’s, Mathematicians and Their Times, 1981; E.T. Bell’s, Men of Mathematics 1937; Dunnington’s Carl Friedrich Gauss, Titan of Science, 1955 and Lewis Moore’s Isaac Newton, A Biography, 1962. Reports can be made more challenging by assigning themes to be investigated, for example: “Sixteenth Century Algebraists”: “The Circle Squarers”, or cooperative relations between mathematicians explored such as “Teacher and Pupil” or “Father and Son” etc. Another approach is to assign topics of investigation involving particular mathematical problems, ones which within themselves have a long history, for example: “Euclid’s Fifth Postulate” or the “Constructability of Regular Polygons”. Several examples of undergraduate and secondary school students report situations are given below.