Activities for Integrating Math & History in the Classroom

Instructor: Vanessa Botts
Combining math and history in the curriculum is important because they are both intertwined as math has shaped our history and vice versa. In this lesson we will discuss various examples of activities that can be used to engage K-12 students in learning history and math.

Why Combine Math and History?

Did you know that even before there were words to communicate orally or in writing, ancient humans were communicating with math? The Ishango bone, which is considered to be the one of the earliest artifacts depicting math calculations, dates back to over 20,000 years ago. It was discovered in the Congo region of Africa, and it shows notches that indicate tallying or numerical grouping. This bone is evidence of the practice of arithmetic in early human history and demonstrates how math and history have intersected for thousands of years.

From the Pre-Historic era through the Middle Ages and in modern times, math has been a part of history that, sadly, has been neglected in the K-12 curriculum. We teach math and we teach history, but instead of teaching each of these subjects on their own, why not combine them and make them come to life with some engaging classroom activities?

Math Timeline

For students ranging from elementary school through high school, an engaging activity can consist of creating a historical timeline of math advances, discoveries and historical figures. A math timeline will provide students with an overall sense, along with a visual representation, of math throughout history.

This activity can take place over a period of days, weeks, or throughout an entire term. As certain time periods are discussed, math-related items that happened can be posted in their appropriate spot on the timeline.

You and your students could create a timeline made of long strings of paper taped onto a wall, or you could collaborate on a virtual timeline using online tools such as the Timeline creation tool from readwritethink.org.

Can you guess what the first timeline entry would be? The Ishango bone, of course!

Greek History with a Side of Math

As you know, many mathematical terms are derived from Greek words or letters. For example, the word polygon is derived from the Greek poly which means many and gon which comes from the word gonia meaning angle.

A fun activity for students in elementary and middle school would be to combine learning about these terms along with some Greek history, such as the Olympics.

A series of lessons could include a brief history of the Olympics, learning mathematical terms that use Greek words, and then culminate in a Greek Math Olympiad competition where students have to do things, such as:

  • Drawing polygons correctly on the board after hearing the polygon name (the teacher calls out a polygon name such as dodecagon and students attempt to draw a polygon with twelve sides)
  • Relay race to the board to match Greek mathematical terms or letters with their definitions (such as matching pi with the ratio of a circle circumference to its diameter)
  • Stating what specific Greek symbols are used for in math (for instance, the teacher calls out delta and the first student who states something like delta signifies change gets a point.)

The types of games you can have students play in the Greek History Olympics is only limited by your imagination.

Pythagoras

No math and history curriculum would be complete without delving into Pythagoras, the fascinating Greek philosopher and mathematician from the 6th Century BCE, responsible for disseminating the theorem named after him: Pythagorean Theorem.

Pythagoras was not only a gifted mathematician and philosopher, but he was also the leader of a cult called the Pythagoreans, who believed the universe could be understood in terms of whole numbers. He was also a rather peculiar individual who had a strange aversion to beans (as in rice and beans!). So much so, that it is said that once he was being chased by an angry mob and refused to cross a bean field to escape, so he was caught…and murdered. Interesting, right?

Learning about Pythagoras and his adventures in places such as Greece, Italy and Egypt is a great way to get your students engaged in both math and history. Activities could include creating physical models as proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Important Mathematicians

Middle and High school students will develop an appreciation of the development of mathematics throughout history by researching notable mathematicians.

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