Research Mathematicians in History

A WebQuest for 11-12th Grade Mathematicians

Photo of George Cantor 

Introduction | Task | Process | Notes | Evaluation | Conclusion | Credits


What is a mathematician? What is mathematical research like? How have some mathematicians struggled to reach their goals?

Click now to read about the first African American mathematician and about a  mathematician who stood up for justice.

During this project your team will research a historical mathematician and give a report to the class on the life and times of your subject.

Your team will investigate an individual who has gained a doctorate in mathematics. Such a degree is called a Ph.D. and requires several years of intense and advanced study of mathematics. A doctoral candidate completes a culminating research project, called a thesis, which is presented to a critical panel of math professors.

One particularly rich source of information about historical mathematicians is the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora web site maintained by The Mathematics Department of The State University of New York at Buffalo.

Go to the contents page and click on A Modern History of Black Mathematicians. Read the introduction paragraph the first 5-10 entries. Click on each entry and briefly scan the type of information available on the mathematicians.

The Task

Each team will produce and deliver a PowerPoint presentation with at least the following five slides:

  • Title page
  • Historical background of the mathematician
  • Personal biography of the mathematician
  • Mathematical notes about his or her research
  • Conclusion - put it all together
Click here for a mock presentation you can use as a template. [No actual template available]. Have fun modifying the template's style parameters -- be artistic.

Click here for a basic PowerPoint tutorial and guide. [No actual PowerPoint guide available]

Key Terms

The Process

  1. First, you'll be assigned to a research team of 3 students.

    Each will choose one of the following research roles

    1. Biographer

    2. Historian

      • What was the mathematician's town or country like when he or she was working on a doctorate?
      • What was it like for a person of that background in that place and time to get a doctorate in mathematics, or just to simply get a college education?

        Start with these general references:

    3. Mathematician

      • What was the mathematician's thesis or research topic? This is often mentioned on biographical web sites.
      • Research something related to his or her thesis or research topic. You may not get a deep understanding from this investigation but will at least define one new mathematical term from the person's research areas, such as "Topology".

        Start with these mathematical dictionaries:
        2. mathworld

  2. Next, your group will select a subject mathematician to study. You make pick one from the list below or use the biographer's web references above.  The suggested research topics come from the researcher's work and can be used by your group's mathematician.

    Suggested Research
    Marjorie Lee Browne Topology
    Evelyn Boyd Granville
    Complex Numbers
    Aida Paalman
    George Cantor
    Evelyn Boyd Granville
    Complex Numbers
    Georgia Caldwell Smith
    Group Theory
    Lee Lorch
    Real Analysis
    Alain Tonbe
    Diophantine Equation

    Other mathematicians may have no documented area of research or their thesis may be difficult to decipher as in "
    Asymptotics of determinants of Toeplitz operators on the sphere." In that case, the job of the group's mathematician starts with trying to get some meaning out of part of that math jargon. She or he could choose the topic Asymptote, or Determinant (or suggest a different subject mathematician).

  3. Next a rough draft of your slides will be due. If you have no research yet, your slide should say something like "There is no research available yet on Isaac Newton's mathematics."

  4. A final version of the slides will be due and used to rehearse your presentation. Each slide should have a few speaking notes in PowerPoint that expand beyond the slide's text.

  5. Your group will use the slides to present a 5-8 minute report on your mathematician subject to the class. Each group member is expected to talk for at least one minute.

  6. In a final seminar, your entire class will discuss the group presentations, looking for connections between the mathematicians.

Research Notes

Keep your slides simple. Too much information can be worse than too little. Each slide should contain a few key points.

As a team your group will make decisions based on what will make a good overall presentation on your subject mathematician. Don't stop at the first web site or two, dig down a little to get better explanations or content.

In some cases the historian, biographer or mathematics researcher won't come up with much useful information that directly pertains to the subject mathematician. Use your imagination to make a relevant presentation. The biographer can discuss mathematicians in general, the historian can pick a topic related the history of mathematics the general part of the world the subject is from.

Look for the "Search" button on most every web site. That can lead you to specific information by using the name of a person or places as a search string.


Your score for this unit will be the sum of these team and individual scores.











Team Subject Information


Few facts are cited. Information is not clear or  poorly  referenced.
Information is adequate in quantity. Not all information is significant.
All information is significant.
Interesting knowledge of the subjects revealed by the team's research.


Team Coordination and Cooperation.



Team presentation isn't planned and rehearsed.
Team presentation shows some planning and smoothness.
Team presentation is coordinated. Transitions are snappy.
Team comes across as a well oiled machine.


Individual Research Contribution


Didn't represent team role. No significant contribution to the team's research.
Noticeable development of team role. Contributed to the team's research.
Showed ownership of team role. Contributed quality research to the team.
Strong advocate for team role. Drove quality and quantity of the team's research.


Individual Speaking SKills
Hesitant. Not Prepared.
Speaks evenly and with some feeling.
Fluid and enthusiastic speech.
Speaker has style and appropriate pacing.


At the end of this WebQuest you will have researched information on the web and created a well organized team presentation. You have will have gained understanding of what a mathematician does and who mathematicians are.

The amount of information from just the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora web site may seem overwhelming at first. However, as you start to do online research, finding specific information on your subject mathematician may be difficult, despite the vastness of the web.

What additional information might be available in books, magazines or journals in school, city or university libraries? For a small slice, go to the contents page and click on Ancient or Modern References. These sources were used to create the web pages on the site.

Credits & References

Photo sources:

George Cantor See the Copyright Information link on a George Cantor web page at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Web Page and Lesson Design by
    David Louis Levine

Last updated on March 19, 2004. Based on a template from The WebQuest Page