Courageous Explorers Highlight Black Mathematicians

Heather HolgateTeaching for Transformation, The CACE Roundtable, The Teachers' LoungeLeave a Comment

Student pointing at math problem on a whiteboard.

I am a middle school math & Bible teacher at Whitinsville Christian School (WCS) in Whitinsville, Massachusetts. My Deep Hope for my students and myself is to courageously explore and do mathematics, discovering order and patterns in God’s creation and applying those discoveries to solve real problems for real people.

My Deep Hope is important to me because many students find math difficult and are often convinced they are not good at it. Even when students do learn math concepts, they struggle to see the beauty of mathematics in their everyday lives or how they can use it to solve real problems for real people.

To support a shift in mindset about mathematics that helps students persevere, I have chosen Courageous Explorers as my Storyline.

The Courageous Explorers storyline reinforces my Deep Hope while actively conveying to students that they are partners with God and a part of His story. These words also direct how I design learning experiences for my students.

Heather Holgate's "Courageous Explorers" Storyboard
Heather Holgate’s “Courageous Explorers” Storyboard

Courageous Explorers explore Black mathematicians

In the month of January, I introduced my students to figures in history who have courageously explored mathematics, overcome difficult hurdles, persevered, and positively impacted the world. Inspiration and courage can come from those who have gone before. This mission is at the heart of the learning experience I have designed for my students: Let’s Celebrate ~ Black History Mathematicians. 

WCS students with their research posters.

The middle school math curriculum has several learning outcomes that directly connect to my Deep Hope. Students are to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, attend to precision, look for and use structure, reason abstractly and quantitatively, and use appropriate tools strategically. At the heart of the standards for mathematical practice is the idea of exploration and application. I provide opportunities for students to explore mathematics as a way to deepen students’ appreciation for the order and beauty they see in God’s creation. The Justice Seeking throughline lies at the foundation of this Let’s Celebrate experience.

Researching how previous mathematicians have made amazing discoveries models for students what they are capable of doing. As part of this FLEx, students conducted detailed research about the life and work of their chosen African American mathematician or scientist. Together the class explored the math and science laws by applying what they already knew to be true to make sense of something new. Students persevered and found real joy in tackling new concepts, living out their classroom motto: Commit to Try!

I see a clear connection between my Deep Hope and the discoveries of my students:

Students learn best when they take what they have learned in the classroom and practically apply it in the real world. Students were able to see math concepts they know and understand applied in the real world to accomplish amazing things and solve significant real-life problems.

Students shared how it was difficult to learn about the unfair obstacles these people endured just because of the color of their skin. They also said that it felt good to share with their school and local community the work of these amazing people and to do some restorative work.

Students spent time reflecting on how their work relates to God’s story of Fall-Creation-Redemption-Restoration. Students shared their discoveries with the class and with the WCS community. In addition, to celebrate Black History Month, student work was on display throughout February within the Whitinsville community.

Student responses

At the end of the unit, I invited the students to share their thoughts and connections regarding their research. They spoke of their enjoyment of the project—advocating for others, persevering when things are difficult, and doing a small part to restore relationships.

Below are student comments about their work within God’s redemptive story:

I struggle with how unjustly my scientist was treated and how others took credit for her work.  This project has me thinking deeply about how I can be a Justice Seeker and how I might have brought a little piece of fixing and restoration to a broken part of our history by letting others know of her great work.

I am inspired by the work of Elbert Frank. He did not let significant obstacles dampen his quest to use his God-given abilities to serve the world around him. 

WCS students holding their completed "Courageous Explorers" research posters.

I learned that fame is not what is important.  The change or impact your work has on people in the world is what truly is remembered. Without this mathematician, our capital city might be a very different place. We can all be inspired by his story to advocate and seek justice for others. 

I learned from this project that to accomplish a goal you need to commit to what you’re studying and not give up. This also teaches us to use the gifts God gives us instead of whining about why we’re not so important. Philippians 4:13  says: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” So if we apply that to our lives by showing contentment through our trials we can show the strength of God to others. This project inspired me!

The students were not the only ones impacted by this work. Here is how the work impacted me as a teacher:

The Deep Hope and learning targets were realized through this FLEx as students courageously explored order and patterns in God’s creation through the math used by African American mathematicians and scientists. These discoveries solved very real and often large problems for the world.

Students communicated how their mathematician or scientist impacted and influenced the world despite adversity, inequities, and sometimes grave injustices.

This FLEx exceeded my expectations and opened up deep learning opportunities, making a lasting impact on students and me as a teacher.


  • Heather Holgate

    Heather currently teaches Math and Bible classes at Whitinsville Christian Middle School in Whitinsville, MA. She is passionate about sharing her love of math with her students and helping them to see real math in their everyday lives. She firmly believes in the power of a growth mindset, teaching and learning outdoors whenever possible, and instilling in all students that they can succeed in math. When not in the classroom, Heather can be found playing with students in the school garden or hiking with her family and 3 dogs.

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