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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Connecting math with other disciplines

From time to time we try to connect our math teaching with other disciplines. Often this happens naturally — physics examples in precalculus, biology examples in Algebra II, etc. It’s no coincidence that both of these other disciplines are scientific ones: most people naturally think of the sciences as the most fertile ground for applications of mathematics. At some high schools, including Weston, the Math and Science Departments share an office, since it’s natural for the administration to expect a fruitful and regular exchange of ideas between math and science teachers. As I’ve suggested in some previous posts, there are occasionally times when math and science teachers view the world differently, but still it’s true that math teachers are more likely to share a weltanschauung with science teachers than with English or history teachers.

But what about disciplines other than science? What about English, for example? We usually think of high-school and college English as embodying both literature and writing, and it’s easy to think about writing in math classes: for the past 25 years the concept of “writing across the curriculum” has been an emphasis in the United States, and some teachers go so far as to have their math students write actual books. Literature is a tougher connection, though there are a number of resources that are helpful in that area, including Mathematics and Children’s Literature lessons, the Bridging Literature and Mathematics Kit, and many references in the Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal.

It surprises some observers that the two disciplines with which I most often make connections in my math classroom are actually history and music. But both seem rather obvious to me. (Of course they seem obvious to me, now that I’ve been using them for so many years.) Exploring mathematics (or anything) in historical context is always a useful way to provide understanding and perspective, and I try to do that in many ways, both formal and informal. At B.U. Academy we even had students read an entire book about math history, Journey Through Genius, with various chapters spread out through three years according to their mathematical relevance. And I won’t get into the musical connections in this post, but relationships between math and music have long been well-known, going back as far as Pythagoras. We’ll save discussion of that for another post.

Finally, some readers may wonder why I haven’t mentioned linguistics. It’s only because that’s not a high-school discipline, nor is it one that most students are familiar with. But indeed it’s useful to view mathematics as a language (that’s not all it is, but it is a language). Occasionally I’ll make a big deal of this connection, but usually I just slip it in as part of some other activity or assignment.

Administrators want us to make interdisciplinary connections. There are plenty of possibilities in the math classroom.

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