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A Mathematical History Tour: Reflections on a Study Abroad Program

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

There is something deeply gratifying about getting physically close to the important things in our lives. For mathematicians, this could mean walking the same streets as Newton, looking through the same window as Sophie Germain, or standing in the very halls where great mathematics was done. Such places are magical. As a mathematics professor, I (Edwards) struggle to impart that magic in a lecture hall, in a nondescript building on a Midwestern campus. When my students look out the window, they see a parking lot. What if they could see what Newton saw? How might their knowledge of mathematics, and of mathematicians, be transformed if they could travel back in time to Italy during the Renaissance, Paris during the Enlightenment, or London during the Scientific Revolution?

For years now, I’ve tried to incorporate primary source documents into my otherwise typical undergraduate mathematics courses. Readers of Convergence will be familiar with the benefits—and challenges—of such endeavors. I tell the students when, for instance, they’re reading Euler’s Institutiones calculi differentialis, that they’re watching mathematics develop right before their eyes. Yet in the back of my mind, I wonder, “Would they learn more if I took them to Basel, or St. Petersburg, or Berlin?” Many of us extol the values of teaching with historical sources, but what about teaching in historical places?

In this article, I describe a study-abroad program in the history of mathematics that I led in 2019. I hope it inspires you to create other such opportunities for your students. However, even if you are not in a position to undertake such an endeavor, I will provide various resources that might accomplish similar goals. At the very least, I hope this article provides a few moments of pleasant daydreaming about teaching the history of mathematics in Italy, Paris, or London.

The first part of this article is simply my reflection on the actual trip. The second part includes the nuts-and-bolts of program design, and the third provides a student’s perspective.

Figure 1: Group photo at the home of Sophie Germain in Paris. Photo by the author.

R. Abraham Edwards (Michigan State University) and Marie Savoie (Michigan State University, B.S. 2020), "A Mathematical History Tour: Reflections on a Study Abroad Program," Convergence (January 2020)