Today, Google honored the mathematical brilliance of Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, widely hailed as the ‘The Prince of Mathematics.’ On this, his 241st birthday, we celebrate Gauss as a genius who explored many areas of what we now call STEM or STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, (Art), and Math). Equally revered by Math and Science Educators, Gauss, according to Wikipedia, was, “sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum, (Latin for “the foremost of mathematicians”) and “the greatest mathematician since antiquity.” Gauss had an exceptional influence in many fields of mathematics and science, and is ranked among history’s most influential mathematicians. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_Gauss)
What would Gauss think of mathematics education in the 21st Century, where we have technology capable of calculating Pi to the two quadrillionth digit? Nicholas Sze, of Yahoo, describes his calculation of Pi to BBC reporters this way:
“It took 23 days on 1,000 of Yahoo’s computers – on a standard PC, the calculation would have taken 500 years.” The heart of the calculation made use of an approach called MapReduce, originally developed by Google (https://research.google.com/archive/mapreduce.html) that divides up big problems into smaller subproblems, combining the answers to solve otherwise intractable mathematical challenges.At Yahoo, a cluster of 1,000 computers implemented this algorithm to solve an equation that plucks out specific “bits” of pi, expressing the constant in binary – the ones and zeroes familiar from computing.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-11313194)
Would Gauss marvel at our technological achievements? What would he expect to see in today’s 21st Century Classroom as a result of this computing power?
He’d certainly see the kind of computers that ultimately made the Pi Calculation. He’d expect the training of young mathematicians in the use of this calculating power to discover new and wonderful empirical truths about our world (Gauss’ Law of Magnetism is renown in physics classrooms like mine, for describing magnetism and magnetic fields, ultimately leading to his development of the telegraph).
My Math Teaching colleagues continue to celebrate his work in Algebra and Geometry. His great early work, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, was published in 1798, when he was just 21 years old. An evident child prodigy, it’s been anecdotally reported that, at just eight years old, Gauss calculated the sum of numbers 1 to 100 by developing this equation (a major mathematical component of binary – the language of computers):
Gauss said and believed that, “Mathematics is the Queen of Science, and Arithmetic is the queen of Mathematics.” To Gauss, math was a process for discovering the “truths” of nature, leading him to say the following:
What would Gauss say about the enjoyment students experience in today’s 21st Century classrooms? Would Gauss despair at their lack of math ability, along with their now, befuddled parents, scratching their heads during Common Core Math problems?
Kids can and do learn enjoyably in a constructivist educational environment, meaning they literally “make” their understandings through the process of active, engaged discovery. Great teachers (like those working in small groups at Extreme STEAM Science Kids) use “maker education” to guide students in this discovery process. Rather than simple math manipulatives, students are given challenges in Robotics, Engineering, Coding, and in our Art classes, allowing them to uncover the deeper conceptual understanding of Math and Science.
While we physicists continue to celebrate Sir Isaac Newton and his laws of motion, Newton remains somewhat symbolic of the traditional, “sage-on-the-stage teacher, passing knowledge to passive, seated, novices” that is traditionally provided in classrooms, practices, and educational theory:
Gauss is different. He understood the need for students to work collaboratively with their teacher mentors in their combined efforts to develop greater mathematic and scientific understandings:
I guess I’m just more “magnetically attracted” to Gauss and his ”act of getting there.”
Julian Aptowitz is a retired physics teacher from Half Hollow Hills High School in Dix Hills, New York. He has taught for over 20 years. His passion was to always engage his students to critically think while using the skills learned in his very integrated classroom. He collaborated with Bob Budah over seven years ago and they created the very first STEAM Science Program for a camp. Seven years later, Extreme STEAM Science Kids continues to grow upon his premise that children need to be immersed in project-based learning. Here they can learn a skill and then work in teams to solve problems while at the same time be creative and adaptable. It is this 21st Century skill development that will add to their future success in a world that is ever-changing.