Grad student explores 'math culture' in Turkey

As Ellen Abrams considered math-related topics for her doctoral thesis, she knew the summer after her first year would be a good time to explore the options.

So the doctoral student in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) chose a two-pronged approach. For the latter part of the summer, she plans to hole up in a library studying the history of mathematics. But before that, she headed to Turkey to do an ethnographic study of a class at Nesin Mathematics Village.

The village, begun by the Nesin Foundation founded by Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, offers programs for high school and university students from around the world. Its high school programs aim to alter the way mathematics is taught by eliminating the fear of failure that keeps many students from pursuing math. The university program allows students to collaborate on topics outside the typical curriculum, hear from outstanding mathematicians and just “spend time thinking about math,” Abrams said.

Abrams visited in June while the foundation hosted 39 graduate students for a class offered through the International Center for Pure and Applied Mathematics, which provides funding to students from countries or institutions where resources for math research and education may be lacking. The class she visited included students from Pakistan, Iran and Vietnam, among many other countries.

Abrams was particularly interested to see how these mathematicians would come together to study and explore new questions.

“The structures of the algebras they studied, Leavitt path algebras, can be useful as a tool in many different fields,” said Abrams, who has an undergrad degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University. “These students came with different backgrounds and different sets of tools, so it was interesting to see what happened when they were interacting face to face.”

Many of the students came to class to be taught by some of the greatest minds in math, Abrams said, while others wanted to meet colleagues who might help them with questions they are exploring for their theses. Abrams observed the lectures and small group meetings and spent lots of hours talking with the students over coffee and cocktails.

“I would be talking with them for hours and hours and then remember that I really needed to sit down and write my field notes,” she said.

Abrams plans to use this experience as the focus for her second-year project, which is required in the field of STS.

“In Science and Technology Studies we like students to do small research projects they design themselves before embarking upon their main dissertations. This way they can get a feel for real research,” said Trevor Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies. “Since Ellen wants to study the culture of mathematics, it is important for her to experience how mathematics is experienced hands-on in real learning situations.”

While Abrams is interested in ethnographic studies like this one, she said the history of math is really what fascinates her. She plans to spend the rest of the summer scouring archives in Boston, New York City and Ithaca, and then work next year to refine her ideas. She’s also working at a robotics camp for kids ages 5-12.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I want to focus on,” she said of her graduate work, “but I’m very interested in education and pedagogy. And I love working with these kids.”

This article also appeard in the Cornell Chronicle.

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