I will be teaching a course in history of mathematics to juniors/seniors who are math and math education majors, many future school teachers. It should include highlights from antiquity to early 19-th century, but I'd like to supplement it with "hands on" experiences of what it was like doing mathematics in centuries past. Especially since it's a small class, 20-25 students. I don't mean "hands on" literally, like manipulatives, it could be group activities, individual tasks on paper, or even small exploratory projects, but with doing rather than just listening.

What concerns me the most is balance, it is always hard to come up with activities that are meaningful but at the same time what is given in class is enough to reasonably expect students to work out things on their own, I don't want to get them discouraged. Unfortunately, our students have limited background and skills, they can be expected to know (algorithmic) linear algebra, calculus, differential equations, etc., but I expect them to struggle with any kinds of proofs, even in Euclidean geometry and elementary number theory, or with problems not directly analogous to examples.

I was thinking about breaking down some of the classical proofs/solutions into steps and letting them do some of the steps, with hints and nudges, but it is hard to do for the entire course on my own, or to gauge the balance. So I was hoping to find online resources or books that do something like this, or other things, I am open to suggestions. Unfortunately, although books like Eves's or Burton's list a lot of exercises and suggested activities, almost all of them seem to be much too advanced for semi-independent work. And what I saw online is mostly for grade school and/or historical nuggets embedded into other math courses, not a systematic history course.

Any advice and links/references are appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ The first idea that comes to mind for me is compass/straightedge constructions; you could also discuss the problem of using these tools to trisect an arbitrary angle, and introduce a tomahawk (the geometric tool). $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Jan 10 '15 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ You might like my response here: math.stackexchange.com/questions/498339/… It could be easily turned into a "guided worksheet" kind of experience. Also, while this is an entirely fictitious history, there might be some real history which aligns with it fairly well. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gubkin Jan 10 '15 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Good suggestions, thank you. I'll try to break down some propositions from Elements, and give projects on various curves solving duplication and trisection. Very inspirational with logarithms, I wish Steven found that worksheet. :) $\endgroup$ – Conifold Jan 12 '15 at 2:35

I had my students in Math for Elementary Teachers doing arithmetic in the Babylonian, Mayan, and Egyptian systems. It's not beyond them at all, and it helps them understand place value more deeply.

I don't have recommendations for a text for the whole course, but you may find a lot of useful material in Count Like an Egyptian. I hope to run a math circle with material from this book. It explains multiplication and division by Egyptian methods, and Egyptian fractions, which we'll be exploring.

I haven't finished it yet, so I just read the reviews on Amazon to see what I might be missing. Apparently, the book is broader than I'd thought: "Despite its apparently limiting title “Count Like an Egyptian”, this book delivers all that its subtitle “A Hands-On Introduction to Ancient Mathematics” promises. Besides presenting a comprehensive overview of the ancient Egyptian computing methods, Professor Reimer also introduces you to the Mesopotamian sexagesimal system, then compares these with the Roman numerals and Mayan counting glyphs, as well as with the modern decimal and even binary ways of expressing numbers."

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    $\begingroup$ This is the kind of book I am looking for, if only it covered the later period... $\endgroup$ – Conifold Jan 12 '15 at 2:36
  • $\begingroup$ Can you use two books? $\endgroup$ – Sue VanHattum Jan 12 '15 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ As many as it takes, I meant a book with activities I can use, not a book students have to buy. But I do have to cover certain list of topics. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Jan 12 '15 at 5:56

You might use various proofs of the Pythagorean theorem. Several lend themselves to experimenting with paper cutouts. And they can be connected to historical documents. See the Cut-the-Knot website for over 100 proofs, including this ancient gem:


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    $\begingroup$ Nice website, really spans history, thank you. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Jan 12 '15 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ Just dropping this here for anyone who likes the proof pictured in this answer: desmos.com/calculator/zzvldk6poi $\endgroup$ – Chris Cunningham Apr 11 '18 at 12:09

The MAA (Math Assoc Amer) maintains a collection of resources at the website for Convergence to support teaching math via its history. They have a link to a "Treasures" list which includes facsimiles of many, many historical documents.

          enter image description here
          The "Witch of Agnesi": Maria Gaetana Agnesi's cubic curve.
The publication includes articles that could each form a classroom module, e.g.,

Nicholas A. Scoville, "Connecting Connectedness: A Mini-Primary Source Project for Topology Students." 2016. (MAA link.)


It might be difficult to find paper copies these days, but the first edition of A History of Mathematics by Carl Boyer had great exercises at the end of each section. For example:

Later editions of the book dropped the exercise sets, unfortunately.

  • $\begingroup$ "It might be difficult to find paper copies these days..." Use Interlibrary loan, ILL. Don't worry if the librarian looks funny at you. They know how to do it...just a little work for them. It is their job. $\endgroup$ – guest Apr 5 '18 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ I just meant it might be hard to find paper copies for each student in your class. $\endgroup$ – Nick C Apr 5 '18 at 21:12

Why is this assumption that you should do proofs at all, even in simple fashion for the activities? There are activities that are fun and ability appropriate that have nothing to do with proofs.

Some ideas (on a super slow net connection, so no links):

  1. Google Eleanor Dickey on Youtube. Her main interest is education in Roman times (what they actually did). While a lot of her talk is about language instruction or cultural learnings (slavery accepted, cleanliness emphasized), she does have a video showing a little example Roman school with current little English girls taking part. Shows them pushing beads around on the little strange segmented rectangle counting boards. Teachers would like that as it is in some ways similar (at least in appearance) to the new fangled boxes and stuff for math...at least it shows them something to think about. I would even let the troops dress up if they want...might be surprised at the creativity and enjoyment they get out of it...even if they aren't MSE Rudin studs, can be surprised by how some people like amateur arty activities. And it increase the sugar to medicine ratio. More sugar, more sugar, more sugar...help that medicine go down!

  2. Finding pi statistically using needles dropped on a board. (There are some math lessons about stats and angles and such...but don't underestimate the fun and the traction from being able to doing something real and physical.) There are some good 'net articles on it and after the exercise, you can teach the history. But I would keep it simple and design the test using a line spacing equal to needle (or toothpick or matchstick)--the Wiki article needlessly complicates the exercise with making spacing not equal to the needle.

  3. There is a nice Six Sigma exercise using a catapult...gives learning about angles and statistics and such.

  4. Guessing the jelly beans in a jar (average, range, etc.). Leads into a general discussion of Bayesian guessing--please don't get all wrapped up with the conditional math, but talk a little about how this is an important concept nowadays and helps people make money (efficient markets, election and sports betting, etc.) These are topics that excite people since they have impact on their lives ($$). [Always try to have some "motivation" for science or math subjects...usually this will be economic, but it might be social or military. And by motivation, I don't mean a long complicated word problem derivation of a diffyQ...I mean mentioning that it helps people make money or save lives.] Let 'em eat the beans afterwards. Kids love that sort of stuff. Adults are big kids. Leaves them with a good feeling about the experience also.

  5. Less formed idea, but you could do something with shooting stars (or sun or moon). Don't teach them celestial nav (right ascension of Ares, blabla) or all the details of every measurement. But just a couple measurements so they get to "learn with fingers" and just play a little. Then a discussion of how development of trig, navigation, time-keeping, etc happened. This was math with both economic and military consequences and very historical. Furthermore in the (probable) event that your students are never able to take all the general science that would benefit them as a high school teacher, at least you have given a little exposure here.

  6. Less formed idea, but some simple card game or gambling exercise and the stats insight from it. Don't go super in depth on the stats, but do a little afterwards so they get that it wasn't just a game. Can also discuss some of the history of probability and games of chance (this is fun and excites interest). Also, there is an important cross-cultural component in that anthropologists have seen evidence across many cultures (rain forest to Eskimo, etc.) that gambling is a concept that people understand. [Need to research to find some good articles on this, but I have seen it talked about at times.]

  7. Even less formed idea but some simple prob/stats game with pretend farms. Much of probability and stats and even genetics comes out of agriculture. It is also an area that intuitively resonates with people (getting food to eat) and some of the first words and concepts we learn as a child are related to food and animals. Many business frameworks use barnyard terminology since it resonates well with people. [You probably don't need to design this thing from scratch...I bet someone has had same idea and designed an exercise, you could research.]

  • $\begingroup$ I like having them create their own measuring device for angles, taking measurements, and calculating distances to the sun/moon etc. Perhaps something else I was thinking of would be a class debate about who invented calculus: Newton or Leibniz. It would require them to do research with primary documents from the time period and judge their authenticity. $\endgroup$ – ruferd Apr 5 '18 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ I like the Newton/Leibniz exercise. It allows them to talk about, think about, write about different parts of calculus and also plays into some things like psychology, credit, publishing, idea transmission, notation, etc. Can even let the students write about who mad the more important contribution and why (keep it open, let them argue their case...not a "right answer"). Obviously, they will need to rely on secondary sources...most lack any Latin at all and Baroque Era science/math Latin can be a real challenge even for a Latinist because of the (necessary) invention of new words. $\endgroup$ – guest Apr 5 '18 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ I know it sounds corny but you could let/require them to dress up for the debate. It does get them thinking about math in a historical context. And as an activity done by real people. And they love it. $\endgroup$ – guest Apr 5 '18 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ Also helpful in afterwards class discussion to mention how Newton sort of derailed English analysis for a while, This is debatable but a worthwhile discussion, how ideas permeate or last or affect fields. Also, how Leibniz's notation won out and some discussion of how convenient notation is an important development in and of itself. (One can make a credible case that Feynman diagrams are inferior to the other guy forget name who used Green's functions for QED, but the little pictures are very convenient!) $\endgroup$ – guest Apr 5 '18 at 17:48

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