More Than Just a Grade: The HOM SIGMAA Student Contest Fosters Writing Excellence at UMKC - Paper Topic Choice

Richard Delaware (University of Missouri - Kansas City)

Students write two 4,000–5,000 word papers for my course, and the first and most time-intensive task for them is to choose a topic for each paper. This is never simple. Their incoming knowledge of the history of mathematics is shallow at best. So, to complement the resources within the Katz textbook (his References, Exercises, and Notes), I provide a list of print and internet sources for them to survey. (See Appendix 2.) I also bring in a subject expert librarian for one class who teaches them how to navigate library resources. In addition to our UMKC library, we are lucky to have located in the center of our campus the well-known private Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, and Technology, containing not only a huge collection of books in the history of mathematics, and subscriptions to journals like Historia Mathematica, but a well-stocked rare book room that houses dozens of historical mathematics books. (See the Convergence article: Mathematical Treasures at the Linda Hall Library, by Cynthia J. Huffman.)

For the first paper, I allow my students at least three to four weeks to trap a topic, with my help and their extensive searches. (Yes, it often seems like netting a darting butterfly.) I tell them a topic must have original documents (in translation) available, and those must include enough argumentation or proof for a healthy and required explication. (It is always dangerous to choose a mathematician who writes too well. In that case there may be little for a student to add. Example: Euler.) Below, I will only concentrate on the unique and most mathematical part of these papers.