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Impacts of a Unique Course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World - Impacts on Students and the Larger Community

Nuh Aydin (Kenyon College)

Most of the students who have taken the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World course say that it has been an eye-opening course and they are extremely surprised and saddened that they had never heard of such great contributions to mathematics and the sciences from the Islamic civilization before taking the course. Some of the students stated (in final reflection papers at the end of the semester and course evaluations) that they could not help but communicate what they learned in this course to family members or high school teachers. I have had students contact me to discuss matters related to the content of the course after graduating from college. It is evident that the course was deeply enlightening for many students and had a profound and long-lasting impact on them.

The following comments from two students, one from each of two different offerings of the course, are more detailed than most, but typical in other ways. Notes [in brackets] have been inserted by the author for clarification.

Student A, from Fall 2013:

When I first came to Kenyon, I remember perusing the course listings, eager to begin my “liberal arts journey.” Upon seeing “History of Mathematics in the Islamic World,” I knew this was one course my other friends attending big universities would never have the opportunity to take…..

When I went home for Thanksgiving Break I couldn’t help but explain the misconceptions of Copernicus, innovations of Al-Khwārizmī, and various talents of Omar Khayyám. I’m not sure if my family completely understood everything I explained, but I was just so eager to share with them my newly acquired knowledge.

If my goal in signing up for this course was to truly experience the essence of a liberal arts education, I know I have succeeded. I’m grateful for making the decision to take this course because it has been enlightening in so many ways, and I hope I can [convey] this enlightenment to others in the future.

Student B, from Fall 2011:

Overall, this class has corrected many of the misconceptions that I have had on the contributions of Islamic mathematicians and scientists. My freshman year of high school, in my World History class, my final project was a debate over whether the Tang Dynasty or the Abbasid Dynasty was more influential. Though I was debating on the side of the Tang Dynasty, I remember many of my opponents’ arguments. As a conclusion for my reflection paper, I would like to include an email I sent to my high school history teacher, which I felt compelled to write after taking this class: …..

One innovative element I tried in the course was a community service component. Since most of the Muslim community is not aware in an accurate way of the historic contributions of Islamic civilization to modern science, I thought it would be useful for the Islamic community to hear final presentations from my students at the end of the semester. In lieu of a final exam for the course, students do a final project which has two components, either an oral presentation or a poster, and a paper. For the first few offerings of the course, students always presented their projects to the class. In Fall 2014, I arranged for them to present at an Islamic community center in Columbus, Ohio, which is about one hour away from the Kenyon College campus. Despite some difficulties in logistics, it was a successful and useful experience for both the students in the class and the local community in central Ohio. Feedback from both students and audience members about this experience follows.

Comments from students who participated in the event at the Community Center (December 14, 2014):

I thought that the presentations in Columbus went really well. I was happy with my classmates’ findings. I thought that the audience found the work engaging, which made me feel good. Sometimes, when you are just working on a project in isolation, you can’t really tell if other people are going to like what you are saying, or even understand it fully. However, I thought that everyone in the class did a good job in making the material relatable. Also, the responses from the audience were heartwarming. A lot of the things we do in classes, here at Kenyon, don’t seem like they are all that applicable outside the walls of academia. This made it seem like the research we were doing was useful for people who weren’t college students. I wish Kenyon gave more opportunities to engage with the general public.

The most rewarding aspect of the class was being able to present our final projects at the Noor Islamic Center. My partner and I had worked extensively on the project and we were thrilled to finally be presenting to an audience at the Center. I respect the members of the Islamic Center immensely and I was completely elated when one member had come up to me and asked me to write down some terms from our presentation so that she could look them up later. In fact, many individuals had come up to me and thanked me for teaching them something that they had little prior knowledge [of]. It was amazing how invested they were in what we had worked on and how open they were with their gratitude. Truthfully, it was I that was most grateful. It was so uplifting that the Center had wanted us to come all the way from Gambier to give our presentations. It was in the moments [preceding] our presentations in which everyone [was] conversing and thanking us, that everything that I had worked for in the course had come together. I became vehemently proud of my work in the course and confident of the knowledge I had acquired. This class has taught me many things that will carry on through my academic career, as well as beyond my schooling.       

I think the presentations organized for us at the NICC at the end of this semester put an extra emphasis on the importance of what we’ve learned this semester. Besides having the opportunity to present our findings to a community to whom our course applies heavily, it was fantastic to hear their pleasure at listening to our presentations at the end of the event. My main problem with science and mathematics courses in my life has been my inability to see how they apply to the world I live in, but due to the cultural component in this course that was no problem at all. I also think the trip to the Mosque at the beginning of the semester was integral to my appreciation of these presentations at the end.

Our final trip to the NICC was really enjoyable. It was really fulfilling to see all of the community members so genuinely interested in our presentations. I felt as if we actually shared something valuable that they did not know before, which made me glad.

After our group’s final project presentation at Noor Islamic Culture Centre in Columbus, I met an Iraqi community member who echoed my response to the material I learned in this class. The woman explained to me that she was interested in the intellectual history of the Middle East. Having attended secondary school and higher education [university] in Iraq, she studied a very basic introduction to the general interests of scholars such as Ibn al-Haytham and al-Khwārizmī. Both Islamic scholars were either Iraqi or lived much of their lives in Iraq. However, the woman explained that she had not learned the specific technical details of these scholars’ works. Prior to taking this class, I knew the broad areas of interest certain popular Islamic scientists entertained. For instance, I knew that al-Khwārizmī invented algebra and Ibn Sina was an anatomist and expert physician. The Iraqi woman and I agreed that prior to exposure to this class we did not know specific technical details of the Islamic scholars’ scientific output. Whereas both the Iraqi woman and I knew specific details of Isaac Newton’s gravitational theory, we did not know much on the specific scientific content of the scholars.

It was very rewarding to go to the cultural center and present. All the talks were very good, and, even though we didn’t get to properly present [some groups had posters, others gave talks], it actually worked very well. It meant that our entire presentation was more personal, and we interacted with a lot of people. It was nice to get to talk to people about our project. Even though we got back a little late, it was still very fun and it was nice to get to go to the cultural center again.

Comments from community members who attended the presentations at the Community Center:

"All the students are so well-versed on these topics. Excellent! Thank you!"

"Thank you for coming. Wonderful presentation. Hope students can come again."

"Thank you for coming. The presentation was useful and informative. Learned a lot. I did not know about Islamic scholars & math and science."

"Tiles/rugs/art beautiful. I see tessellations in many of them." 

"I really liked your presentation about math."

Nuh Aydin (Kenyon College), "Impacts of a Unique Course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World - Impacts on Students and the Larger Community," Convergence (July 2017)