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New Mexico State University

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NSF project adds historical sources into NMSU math classes

Professors at New Mexico State University and six other U.S. institutions are working to demonstrate that math education is more than a numbers game.


Under a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, researchers are developing educational materials that incorporate historical sources into undergraduate and upper-level high school math classes.

“It’s a grant to teach mathematics courses according to how the math was originally discovered or developed,” said Jerry Lodder, an NMSU mathematical sciences professor, in the College of Arts and Sciences, who is working on the project. “This is usually different from the algorithmic formulas that you see today in things like a text book.”

Building on previous grant-funded work, this project, “Transforming instruction in undergraduate mathematics via primary historical sources,” or TRIUMPHS, is developing instructional methods that could help students retain information and offer more direction to math courses, Lodder explained.

“This historical perspective helps students understand why the mathematics came into being – rather than just seeing a formula, they understand what problem it was designed to solve,” Lodder said. “Math is full of abstract definitions and concepts, but many people don’t know their origin or why they’re there. The students gain an understanding of where the abstract concepts come from.”

Primary sources used in these lessons include the original writings of mathematicians, such as Euclid’s “Elements,” or the works of Archimedes. While few students naturally associate math with historical texts, Lodder uses exerpts from both of these writings to help teach students geometry at NMSU.

“They seem a lot more motivated,” Lodder said. “The students do better on the projects when they understand the reasons behind the math. They do better on homework that’s based in historical sources than they do on standard homework problems from a textbook.”

NMSU’s role in TRIUMPHS is to develop lessons integrating primary sources into geometry and general math education classes. Other schools involved in the project emphasize different topics, such as topology or analysis.

Over the next five years, roughly 50 math professors nationwide will test these projects and lessons on their own students. Researchers will then compare these results with data taken from courses that are not taught using historical sources to best assess the students’ progress.

“The goal is basically to transform education in mathematics – eventually to teach as many math courses as possible entirely from primary sources,” Lodder said.

Other universities involved in this study are Colorado State University – Pueblo; University of Colorado Denver; Central Washington University; Florida State University; Xavier University and Ursinus College.