Celebrating Forgotten Mathematicians

“Who can name a mathematician?” Middle School Math Teacher Fanny Sosenke asked her Class 6 students during a recent virtual lesson. A few beats passed as they considered the question.

“Albert Einstein,” one offered. Others suggested Isaac Newton, Pythagoras and Archimedes. When Ms. Sosenke shared her screen, black-and-white headshots of the 100 best-known mathematicians appeared. “What do you notice?” she wondered.

“They are all white men,” a student astutely observed. Indeed, Ms. Sosenke concurred, notable math scholars heralded throughout history have comprised a mostly homogeneous group with little evidence of gender, racial or religious diversity.

The teacher then pressed her students further. “Can you name any female, African American, Asian or Jewish mathematicians?” Silence filled the Zoom room. “We’re going to change that!” she declared.

With their curiosity piqued, Ms. Sosenke introduced “Forgotten Mathematicians,” an immersive project that gave her students the chance to discover, research and celebrate previously unrecognized leaders in the fields of math, science, engineering and related disciplines.

Following Ms. Sosenke’s step-by-step instructions, the students in her first section were dispersed to a series of breakout rooms where they discussed their ideas in smaller groups. They also used their laptops to begin researching potential people to feature. (The other three Math sections met at other times.)

Incorporating a reflective element to this unit, the students were asked to draw on the ongoing identity-focused work in their Advisories and to look for an individual from any era who aligned with some aspect of who they are. For example, a student whose relatives are from Japan might have sought out a Japanese mathematician to study.

After exploring their “person,” the students entered information on a Google Form, making sure to briefly describe their reasons for choosing the mathematician as well as to record his or her date and birth place; some interesting tidbits about early and career-defining years; math concepts they mastered; and other famous people they may have known.

In the breakout rooms, some students worked independently while others collaborated with one or two classmates. Ms. Sosenke and Teacher Assistant Iffath Choudhury popped in and out of the eight rooms to provide guidance and answer questions. The excitement was palpable as the students engaged in lively, productive chatter and typed energetically on their keyboards.

“She’s really cool! Let’s do her!” one student said after reading about a particularly impressive mathematician. “And she’s still alive!” her partner agreed, smiling widely from her Zoom box.

Pairing the facts, figures and Internet images with healthy doses of imagination, the students were next tasked with inventing a fictitious Instagram profile for their mathematician. On a

Google Slides template, they plugged in familiar components like screen name, biographical highlights, location, accomplishments and photos. In authentic Instagram fashion, they were even encouraged to add followers and hashtags.

For example, one student chose the groundbreaking astronomer Caroline Herschel, whose account was followed by “Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria and 594 more.” In a post tagged “Outer space 1783,” Ms. Herschel wrote, “While at work found this COMET!” with the hashtags #FirstWoman and #Ilovemyjob.

In another profile, a student crafted German mathematician Emmy Noether’s profile with a bio that proudly labelled her a “creative mathematical genius.” In her 1915 post, this founder of “Noether’s Theorem” gave a shout-out to her mentees: “Teaching to my amazing university students!” she declared. “They’re all so attentive and love to learn.”

Judging from the clever and captivating finished products, Class 6 made the most of this exhilarating exercise. Not only did they propel their mathematicians into the lightening-speed world of social media (all pretend, of course), each student cast long-overdue spotlights on extraordinary innovators – among them, women, people of color and other less represented groups – whose significant contributions enhanced their fields in myriad ways.

Without question, Ms. Sosenke’s students found the “Forgotten Mathematicians” project a fun and rewarding learning experience. Here are a few samples of their thoughtful comments:

“We chose Maryam Mirzakhani because we love geometry, and she works in the field of geometry. She was also very inspiring by teaching and helping young students in college. We also found that she won the Fields Medal [math’s top honor], and that’s a big accomplishment. She was the first Irani and woman ever to receive that award.”

“Hertha Ayrton broke barriers for women and was friends with Marie Curie, who I also admire. Like me, she is female and enjoyed architecture and math and inventing.”

“We chose Katherine Johnson because she was a Black women, which was a minority back then. She worked at NASA, which is a big deal. She also had a movie created about her called Hidden Figures.”

“I picked Ada Lovelace because she made the first computer, and I really like computer science. I also wanted to do someone who lived a long time ago because I wanted to learn about their life.”

“I chose mathematician Marjorie Lee Browne because I think it’s inspiring and really interesting that she was one of the first Black females to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Receiving a Ph.D. is already an extremely tough task, and it must have even harder for Majorie Lee Browne since she was a Black female. She must have worked really hard and was probably very dedicated to math.”