The Moldy Oldies: Life Stories of Mathematicians by and for Kids

Kathy Heller
College Station Elementary School, USA


This project was undertaken in an attempt to integrate the Internet into a 4th-grade mathematics curriculum. My students have not attached a historical context to mathematics. It was hoped that reading about famous mathematicians would spark an interest or deeper meaning to what we were studying in the classroom. The initial intent of the project was to have students use the Internet as a reference source for a famous ancient mathematician. What quickly became apparent was that the information they found was written by adults for adults. The students were frustrated by difficult vocabulary, and the teacher was frustrated by having to "translate" what they found. The initial project did serve the purpose for which it was designed, but what was more powerful was the subsequent project developed by the students and teacher. The students took the information they found and rewrote it in their own words. They also drew portraits of the mathematicians they studied. A group of students entered the text, and the drawings were scanned in as well. All information was then placed on the World Wide Web. What had started out as a frustrating experience turned into a motivational one that left everyone feeling quite proud in the accomplishment.

Students chose a mathematician from a list prepared by the teacher. A significant amount of advance work was done by the teacher to find at least three Web sites for each student to visit. If a student found information to copy, the address was given to the teacher who copied the information at night.

It quickly became apparent that the material was "over the head" of most of the students. When someone commented, "If it had only been written with kids in mind!" we knew we had a way to correct the problem. Students were asked to rewrite the story of their mathematicians and draw their portraits. Discussion then centered on how the pages were to look, including background color and placement of text. Several students offered to type the text. A basic explanation of HTML was given to the students, but it was easier for the teacher to enter the codes after the text was finished.

Several problems had to be handled throughout this project. One hindrance was having only one computer available. The scheduling did not always work exactly as planned, and it seemed there were constant revisions. Also, at times Netscape seemed to "crawl," and the students sometimes became impatient. Perhaps the most challenging problem was the technical nature of the articles the students found. It was very frustrating, and it took a considerable amount of time to explain some of the articles. This was quickly forgotten after the students started writing their own versions.

The children learned a considerable amount about the lives and discoveries of their famous mathematicians. This proved to be a very positive outcome. But the highlight of all their work is the "Moldy Oldies Collection" they've published on the World Wide Web ( It will be registered once all the modifications are made.