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Dordt professor begins new textbook during sabbatical

July 6, 2009

Dr. Calvin Jongsma

Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, algebra …

If this word pattern seems jarring, then you haven’t heard about Dr. Calvin Jongsma’s latest project. He’s writing a middle school mathematics education textbook organized around the history of mathematics.

He began work on the project during a half-time sabbatical from Dordt College this past year. Seven sections have been completed (out of a projected 32 sections), and he’ll continue the process with a quarter-time release during the next two years, thanks to project support from the Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service, a privately funded organization that provides opportunities for Dordt College faculty, students, and staff members to develop Reformed Christian scholarship and service that engages today’s global community.

Dr. Jongsma is a professor of mathematics at Dordt College, and his area of expertise is math history. Among the courses he regularly teaches is Math 109, a class for education majors seeking a middle school teaching endorsement for mathematics.

“I’ve always had an interest in pre-college mathematics education, but this is my first serious attempt to combine it in a more public way with my background and expertise,” says Jongsma. “The history of mathematics has the potential to give prospective teachers deeper insight into the material they will be teaching. It also forces them to look at the material in fresh ways, much of which can be brought into their teaching as enrichment material or as a contribution to an integrated thematic unit.”

Some examples of math history in the opening sections of the book are Roman numerals and the abacus; Egyptian numeration; Mesopotamian sexagesimal fractions; and Greek theory of ratio and proportion. Because there are few textual resources on middle school math history, Jongsma has done a lot of research and developed detailed outlines for his Math 109 classes, which he is now fleshing out into textbook material.

“My intent is to produce a commercial product for pre-service and in-service teachers, but I also hope that this might spawn teacher-written materials for use in their own middle school classrooms.” Jongsma will continue using his textbook material in Math 109, but would also like to use it for a graduate level course in mathematics education if sufficient interest exists.

Jongsma says a historical focus in mathematics gives a developmental component to student mathematics education, as well as a broad context in which one can discuss structural issues and aspects of religious orientation and contemporary applications for mathematics. “I think this approach offers exciting potential for implementing Dordt's general educational perspective in a more specialized setting.”

Jongsma has already gotten some positive feedback on his work from Dordt students, and has also received input from professors at an Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences conference held at Wheaton College in May.

In June he presented a three day seminar for Dordt educators and others interested in middle school mathematics education. The Andreas Center sponsored the workshop, with eight participants attending and offering their response to three 90-minute sessions. Participating were Dordt professors Dennis De Jong, Dennis Vander Plaats, Tim Van Soelen, Sharon Rosenboom, and Valorie Zonnefeld; a Dordt student, Autumn Den Boer; Sioux Center Christian teacher Rebecca De Smith; and a collaborator on the textbook who teaches mathematics education courses at Trinity Christian College, Dave Klanderman. Feedback from participants will be useful for revising the text and for further writing.

Jongsma hasn’t begun marketing the textbook yet, but there seems to be a fair bit of interest in the project from those who have heard about it. “Given how unusual the approach is, it may be difficult to get a commercial textbook publisher to take on the enterprise,” concedes Jongsma. “I hope to send some sample sections out to publishers sometime in the coming year.”

In the meantime, he’ll continue developing more sections of the book, using notes, outlines, and further research. Jongsma learned and is using LaTeX software for the project, a state of the art publication software specifically designed for mathematics.

Jongsma has previously written a privately published textbook for a course he teaches each spring in Discrete Mathematics (Math 212). “Students have appreciated it and find it useful for helping them do advanced mathematics,” says Jongsma “I hope that this new text will have similar success.”

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