Mathematician in History Assignment

October 21, 2010 at 6:04 am 3 comments

This semester the theme of my Thursday blog posts has been “Creating a Community of Learners”. One key to building a sense of community is having assignments and projects that encourage groups of students to work together. One of my favorite projects is the Mathematician in History project.

I have my students create a poster about the life of a famous mathematician. I provide my students a list of questions that must be answered, and all of the answers are easily accessible through Internet searches. I tell my students that they must also include a picture of the mathematician, and their poster must be visually appealing.

Do you want to see a sample assignment? Reach me through the contact page on my website –

One benefit of this assignment is that it gives me some art to put on the wall at the back of the classroom.

Another benefit is that my students learn through the life stories of these mathematicians that mathematicians are real people. So many students perceive that mathematicians are part wizard, part computer. When they read about the self-taught Indian genius Ramanujan, the movie-like life and times of Galois, the struggles for acceptance faced by Hypatia, or the know-it-all third grader Gauss, they can relate to these stories on a human level. It makes mathematicians, and hopefully mathematics, seem more accessible to them.

Students love to be creative, and this assignment gives them their chance. One group of students chose to make their poster into a t-shirt. Another student, Murleen Ray, was disappointed that there was only one photo of Ramanujan and decided to paint one herself. She did such a great job that my publisher commissioned her to do a series of paintings for my textbook. Here are a few of them.

(c) Murleen Ray

Another option, by the way, would be to have your students make their “poster” on Glogster. It’s a great way to share your students’ work with the rest of the class. Here’s one I put together on Ada Lovelace.


Do you have any questions or comments about these assignments? Do you have projects that accomplish similar goals? If so, please share your experience by leaving a comment or reaching me through the contact page at my web site –


I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Each Thursday I will be blogging about the importance of community in the classroom. If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. ASR  |  October 21, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Hi George, I remember Murleen Ray’s art — it was impressive!

    • 2. georgewoodbury  |  October 21, 2010 at 9:06 am

      One of my favorite students of all time. Those were the days, Anne.

  • 3. SUsan McCourt  |  October 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

    In my Liberal Arts Math classes, I have a similar assignment but select Mathematicians that faced a hurdle to doing their work: Alan Turing, Sophie Germain, Ada Lovelace, Elbert Frank Cox, Srinivasa Ramanujan, David Blackwell, and Euphremia Lofton Hayes. I bet some of those are unfamiliar names!


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