A Mathematical History Tour: Reflections on a Study Abroad Program - Capturing the Magic, at Home

R. Abraham Edwards (Michigan State University) and Marie Savoie (Michigan State University, B.S. 2020)

A more intractable challenge facing educators is that many of us lack the resources, university support, or sizable student body to successfully design, recruit, and run an education abroad program on this scale. Nevertheless, I think that some sense of the magic we felt can be captured in or near a traditional classroom.

Thanks to Google Earth, instructors can take their students on “virtual tours” of many of the sites we visited, including the streets of Paris, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Your students can see many different and beautiful views of both the inside, and dome, of the cathedral on a 3D virtual tour.

Many of Europe’s top museums have online, interactive sites where anyone can explore the mathematical properties of artistic masterpieces. With the advent of virtual reality, a visit to the Louvre or the British Museum is at your fingertips. The National Museum of Computing also has a website where users can take a virtual 3D tour, and explore a reproduction of Turing’s “Bombe” machine. The Google “Arts and Culture” project takes you to street views (and even inside) some of the most fascinating places on the planet.

Several of the primary source documents we examined have been digitized and are freely available online. Students anywhere in the world can see Edmund Halley’s handwritten notes in Newton’s Principia by visiting the website of the Royal Society. A project to digitize all of Newton’s papers at Trinity is underway at the Wren Library, including a personal notebook he kept between 1659 and 1661. Users can search the collection of the British Museum without ever setting foot in London.

“Study away” field trips can be a less expensive alternative to a traditional study abroad program. Many U.S. cities have museums dedicated to science that feature at least some mathematical components. If you are fortunate enough to live near New York City, the Museum of Mathematics could be an inspirational excursion. The Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., contain some excellent mathematical connections, and visitors to the Smithsonian Learning Lab can view over 5,000 mathematical items online. There are mathematical ideas represented in most large art museums. Perhaps the best collection of Islamic geometric tiles in the Western world is at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and many smaller, regional museums are likely to have a number of such pieces.

There is great value in getting outside the classroom, and this value is heightened when we are able to help students “see” the mathematics in alternative spaces. For example, combine the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Mathematics, and the architecture of New York City, and you’ve got a memorable Spring Break trip for your students!