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“Who Am I?” Realizing the people behind mathematics

Subject: Mathematics, World History, English Language Arts, Information Systems, Technology Education

Grade Level: 9-12

Materials: Computers with Internet access and word-processing software, library resources, SMART Board, an LCD projector, and laptop computers

About: This project helps to overcome students' typical relationship to mathematicians. They learn about different mathematicians through a matching game, choose one mathematician for their individual project, and research both online and in print sources. They integrate information to create an original formal letter using appropriate language for display.

Students "step into" one mathematician's life and write an imaginary letter from this mathematician. They create an inviting poster to represent their research and work. Students can use SMART Board to present a final product of their research and writing as an alternative method of presentation. They can capture Internet websites, images, and text for interactive and stimulating presentation.

This unit overcomes negative images of mathematicians and mathematics often held by students, and fosters creativity through interdisciplinary strategies. The unit’s design eliminates “cut and paste” printing by requiring students to search, select, update, and integrate information from many different sources.

This project is easy to implement. It encourages students’ creativity and imagination and builds self-esteem through awareness of the diversity of mathematicians. It can be adapted to many different levels of learners, and in many different subject areas. More advanced math students, for example, can analyze and explain mathematical concepts in greater depth.

Who were the people that created mathematics? Students are expected to become familiar with names and brief biographies of mathematicians from different eras.
Who was my mathematician and what did he/she contribute to mathematics that made him/her famous forever? Students research the mathematician of their choice. They create a detailed biography including personal life and a description of his/her mathematical work with information on collaboration with other mathematicians.
Who would my mathematician write to and what could be in the letter? Students write a formal or personal letter from their mathematician to any real person. Students research options to make a choice.
What do you want other people to know about your mathematician? Students create a poster to introduce their mathematician, display the mathematician’s letter, and illustrate some of that person’s works.
How will you share information about your mathematician’s life? Students present their posters, or alternatively present using SMART Board, and tell stories about their mathematicians (about 5 minutes per presentation). Listeners should be able to explain new information each has learned about the people that created mathematics.

Biographies of Women Mathematicians. The site is a good source of biographies and images of women who contributed to mathematics throughout history. Students research different women mathematicians to compare and choose one.
Images of Mathematicians on Postage Stamps. This site contains world stamps that honored mathematicians of all ages. It gives students perspective on tributes that people of all countries pay to mathematics and mathematicians. Also, it is an excellent source of graphically designed images that students might use in their projects.
Chronological List of Mathematicians. The site facilitates researching mathematicians who lived in the same period of time and could collaborate or influence each other works.
Most popular biographies. This is a collection of 100 sites of the most popular mathematicians. Each site contains a few links for particular mathematicians.
Most Popular Biographies Website

Mathematical Communication: Students write narrative accounts of the history and process of work on a mathematical problem or extended project.
High school
Students use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in world history and examine the broad sweep of history from a variety of perspectives.
World History
Students read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding. As listeners and readers, students collect data, facts, and ideas, discover relationships, concepts, and generalizations; and use knowledge generated from oral, written, and electronically produced texts. As speakers and writers, they use oral and written language to acquire, interpret, apply, and transmit information.
English Language Arts
Students access, generate, process, and transfer information using appropriate technologies.
Information Systems
Students apply technological knowledge and skills to design, construct, use, and evaluate products and systems to satisfy human and environmental needs.
Technology Education

Day 1: “Who Am I?” – A matching game to identify mathematicians of different epochs.
Who were the people that created mathematics? Ask: Could you match the names of mathematicians with a picture and the stories of their lives? Let’s play the matching game “Who Am I?“ Students identify mathematicians using clues, helpful information, and their logic.
Who are mathematicians whose biographies or achievements made an impact on students? Ask: Whose life stories/ideas/influence impressed you most? Why did their achievements appeal to you? Students make a list of 3-4 names of mathematicians who are the prospective focus of their research.
Poster(s) with portraits of mathematicians
Cards with biographical clues of each mathematician in the form “Who Am I?” We divided mathematicians in four categories and used 5x7 different-colored cards for each category.
Cards with individual images of each mathematician with his/her name
Poster with the list of mathematicians in chronological order
Each group of students receives a set of images and clues on 5x7 colored cards describing mathematicians in one of four categories: Classical Sages, Brilliant Women in All Ages, Enlightened Thinkers, and Modern Male Marvels. Students work together, read each card, and match the clues to a mathematician’s picture and name.
The teacher monitors all groups’ process and progress. When the group completes one category, they call the teacher to check their results. Afterwards, the group switches to another category. Repeat procedures 1 and 2 for all four categories until time is called.
The teacher concludes by having students share ideas about their mathematicians that they learned in the game.
Writing assignment: Write about 3 mathematicians whose life stories or achievements impressed you. Explain your choices in 4-6 sentences.
Correct matching of biographies with the names of mathematicians indicates success: students can learn many math history facts. It also demonstrates that math now has a “human face” for students. Students will also be able to evaluate their own interest.

Day 2: Introduction to the project “Who Am I?” - What should students do to complete this project successfully?
What are the steps of the project “Who Am I?” and what is the timeline of each step? Students review each step and determine the project timeline.
How will each step of the project be graded? Students explain grading rubric and standards for evaluation.
What print sources (biographical books and encyclopedias) do we have in the school library about mathematicians? Students select resource materials to begin library research.
Student worksheet for the project
Project rubric
Biographical books and encyclopedias prepared by the school librarian in advance according to the given list of mathematicians; research notecards, as needed
The teacher explains the stages and requirements of the project: research, writing the letter, creating the poster, and the presentation. Each student will receive the student worksheet with detailed descriptions of steps, time limit, and maximum number of points.
The teacher explains the grading of the project and distributes analytic scoring rubric. Students read the rubric and clarify how their work will be evaluated.
This lesson is provided in the school library in collaboration with the librarian. Students research in the books for the information and interesting facts about their mathematicians.
Writing assignment: What books did you search in the library? Write the names of the books and their authors. Who are the heroes of these books?
Students explain their selection of one mathematician for their research project.

Day 3: “Why Am I Famous?” How did my mathematician affect our world? How did their world affect the mathematician? Students should choose one mathematician for comprehensive research and to search for biographical and historic data.
What do you know about childhood, parents, studies, and personal life of your mathematician? Students create graphic organizer or other outline of key facts.
What work of your mathematician is especially famous? Students explain their mathematician and what he/she contributed that made him/her famous forever?
In which period of human history did your mathematician live and work? How did this particular time influenced his/her work? Students discuss challenges faced during particular historic period.
Computers /laptops with access to Internet, research notecards, as needed
Biographical books and encyclopedias
Students use Internet and books for research. They search for biographical information about their selected mathematician, and look for additional interesting facts from the mathematician’s life. The teacher circulates the classroom to assist students and share discoveries.
When students find information on the Internet, they note the link to be used in the List of References. Teacher explains that “Google,” “Askjeeves,” etc. are search engines and cannot be used as reference.
Writing assignment: Write a short biography of your mathematician (2-3 paragraphs). Specify the highlights of his/her life story.
Students become familiar with correct biographical, historical, and mathematical details of their chosen mathematician. They describe it in written form.

Day 4: “Sending a Letter” Who would my mathematician write to and what could be in a letter? Students should research for any clues and ideas about a real person that their mathematician would like to write and about the subject of this letter.
If I were my mathematician, I would write to… Students choose a real person to write a letter from the mathematician. Ask: Why would your mathematician write the letter to this person?
If I were my mathematician, I would write about… Students define a main subject of the letter. Ask: What did your mathematician want to communicate in this letter?
Computers/laptops with access to Internet; research notecards, as needed
Books and encyclopedias
Students use the Internet for accurate facts and interesting details. They make notes to save information.
Writing assignment: Write the first draft of the letter from your mathematician (3-4 paragraphs). Clarify to whom your mathematician writes and the content of this letter.
At the end of this lesson, students should have the name of the mathematician’s correspondent and the letter’s main subject. It demonstrates familiarity with the details of mathematician’s life and creativity for imaginary communication.

Day 5: “Letter Perfect” How your mathematician would use a correct letter format to express him/herself? Students should use a formal letter to communicate historically / mathematically accurate information.
Students should be truthful to the time period with appropriate language and courtesy.
How should you communicate ideas in the formal letter? Students describe any differences of social status, personal relationship, etc. between student’s mathematician and his/her correspondent. Students explain historical discrepancies.
Computers/laptops with access to Internet and word-processing software
Student notecards (if necessary)
Students use the Internet to search for examples of formal letters. They use word-processing software to create the letter.
Writing assignment: Write the final version of the letter from your mathematician It should be one page of a typed text using 12” font and double spacing.
Teacher works with students individually and in small groups to check the first drafts of letters and to answer questions. Students can also meet with their English Language Arts teachers for assistance; credit will be earned for consultations.

Alexandra Gertner and Pat Sutherland-Cohen


Life Sciences Secondary School
320 East 96 Street
New York, NY 10128

Alexandra Gertner teaches mathematics for the 9-12 grades at Life Sciences Secondary School in New York City. She pursued her first career as an artificial intelligence scientist and a software developer in ATT’s Bell Laboratories and other information technology companies. She was awarded 2nd place at the IEEE European Competition for students’ projects, but she always wanted to teach mathematics to children. She received her second Master’s Degree in Math Education of Adolescence at Hunter College, CUNY. Mrs. Gertner continues to pursue current topics both in advanced mathematics as well as pedagogical strategies. ------------------------------------------------------------------ Pat Sutherland-Cohen is the UFT Teacher Center staff member at Life Sciences Secondary School in New York City. She is also an adjunct lecturer of Disabilities Studies for City University of New York’s City College and a certified HIV/AIDS trainer for NYC Board of Education. She has supervised a theater troupe of adults with a wide variety of disabilities, presenting to local, national, and international groups, and frequently organizes education sessions for teachers, students, and community parent-leaders. Pat has long been an advocate for the inclusion of all people regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or ability level.

Important documents for this lesson plan.

Day 6 and Day 7.doc
Introductory images (fragment).doc
List mathematicians for research (Color-number code).doc
Examples of images and colored clue cards.doc
Students final works.doc


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