The Classroom


This page is a collection of stories and ideas from my limited experience in primary and middle/intermediate education. If you like something, feel free to take a copy or share it, citing the source(s).

Sophie Germain: A fascination that overcomes barrierssophie-germain
For one of my university courses I have been asked to investigate the life and work of a mathematician or scientist. Pretty much at random I chose Sophie Germain, of whom I had never heard. Having now found out a little about her, I am impressed and inspired that a person against whom the odds were heavily stacked persisted in her pursuit of difficult mathematical proofs, sometimes over the course of decades. It is worth also noting that she developed friendships with some of the key mathematicians of her day, despite her shyness and lack of influence.

france-63022_640Born in Paris in the late 1700’s, she was just 13 when the Bastille was stormed. While the revolution raged outside, she read in her father’s library. Coming across an account of Archimedes’ death, she was struck that someone could be so caught up with studying geometry that they (allegedly) were not even distracted by an advancing Roman soldier. Her curiosity piqued, she started reading all she could find on the subject of mathematics. When she found that some of the texts were in Latin or Greek, she taught herself those languages in order to be able to read them. And when her parents forbade her from the study, and removed her candles and firewood so that she could not study at night, she built up a secret stash of candles, wrapped herself in quilts and continued anyway. To their credit, they eventually recognised her determination and supported her.

As a woman she was barred from entry to the newly-built Ecole Polytechnique but managed to assume the identity of a student who had left Paris, submitting her work under his name and obtaining his lecture notes. Her tutor, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, could not help noticing that a formerly poor student had suddenly become brilliant and requested a meeting. Fortunately he was very supportive of Germain despite her sex, and she was able to continue her study.

She developed a fascination with number theory, which in brief deals with finding patterns in integers (numbers with no fractional component, e.g. -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3) and generalising these patterns in algebraic expressions. In particular, one famous problem caught her attention: Fermat’s Last Theorem, which she pursued over the course of more than a decade, eventually finding a proof for a special case of certain prime numbers.

She also won, after years of work, a Paris Academy of Science competition to develop a mathematical explanation for patterns observed in vibrating plates. Through developing working friendships with key people including the Academy’s secretary, she finally overcame another societal hurdle and became the first woman permitted to attend the Academy’s lectures.

I can’t help wondering if I would be so determined and bold if I was a shy young woman trying to stay alive while a nation went mad on the streets outside. Perhaps she was attracted to the purity of the language of mathematics; its quiet logic in the face of the insanity beyond her walls; the opportunity to argue powerfully and persuasively through publication, in a world in which she would seldom be taken seriously face-to-face.

I have made a brief pictorial timeline of her life here.

Johannes Kepler: Living with contradictions
A fellow teaching student, Kamna Sharma, has developed this presentation (for the same course) on the life and work of this physicist, astronomer, mathematician and astrologer (pick the odd one out??!).

Introduction to the Cartesian Coordinate System – Slowmation
I’ve put together a little 6-minute ‘Slowmation’ (slow animation) introducing graphing in general and the Cartesian coordinate system in particular. You can download it here, but bear in mind that it’s 38MB in size so might take a while if you have a slow connection. It’s in MP4 format.

A School Kitchen Garden Experience
In March 2015 I volunteered in a primary school that participates in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden program, in which students grow their own food and then cook it. I made a little video about this, which you can view below and/or download (138 MB) and/or share if you wish, providing of course you acknowledge the source. Playing the embedded video below is easiest and does not require downloading the whole file!

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