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A Mathematical History Tour: Reflections on a Study Abroad Program - A Student’s Perspective

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

 I can think of no better way to close this paper than to leave you with a reflection from my co-author, one of the students who lived the history of mathematics in the summer of 2019:


Most people who know me have likely heard about my discomfort surrounding the discipline of mathematics, and many were surprised when I enrolled in a study abroad program that related to the field. Admittedly, I was nervous but was ever hopeful that the benefits of the trip would outweigh any apprehension I was feeling regarding the mathematical components. In short, I’ve never been what people would describe as a “math person”. That is, of course, until I traveled half way across the world in an attempt to find some type of appreciation for the subject.

The dramatic impact that this program had on my ability to appreciate the study and practice of mathematics was something I didn’t anticipate. Following the history of mathematics from city to city, and seeing where some of the greatest mathematicians lived and worked, allowed me to see mathematics from a different perspective. I gained the ability to view mathematicians from a more realistic angle, and in turn, their discoveries began to seem much less esoteric. I felt connected to them in a way that I’m certain is unique to this program because my fellow classmates shared similar sentiments. We were able to see them as they were—real people with genuine familial, societal, and personal conflicts. I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to participate in a program that not only discussed their mathematical studies in the context of these struggles, but placed me in the same cities where these events transpired. Without the latter element, I can say with utmost certainty that this topic would have failed to interest me in the profound way that it actually did.

Each site visit made the historical figures come alive, almost as if we were standing in the same room together. One of my favorite experiences was our tour of Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing’s office was arranged to be as historically accurate as possible. The museum curators did a phenomenal job recreating the scene, including details such as his sweater hanging in the closet and World War II propaganda posters hanging on the walls. Although past courses had touched on the significance of Turing’s bombe machine, they didn’t acknowledge the influence that society had on the code-breaking genius himself. Our summer curriculum was all encompassing, considering both the societal impact of the work carried out at Bletchley Park and the personal trials that shaped Turing’s professional career. Needless to say, it was a privilege to observe and exist in what used to be his workspace.

I will not be challenging myself with the joys of line integrals or Green’s theorem in the near future. However, I can confidently say that due to my participation in this study abroad program, I am much more aware of the intimate relationships between society and mathematical innovation. Appreciating formulas, proofs, and all of the other crazy and wonderful quirks of this discipline is no longer a difficult task—I’ve seen some astonishing feats that are the products of those discoveries and understand, to some degree, the painstaking effort that was required to realize them. This program provided many opportunities for personal and academic growth, and in so doing, proved that the field of mathematics extends far beyond the black and white numbers that we read in textbooks.

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 - A Student’s Perspective," Convergence (January 2020)

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