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Uncovering a legacy

Posted 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Professor Susan Kelly and student Megan Scott traveled to Washington D.C. to analyze the scholarly works of mathematician Gloria Ford Gilmer.

UWL's Susan Kelly and Megan Scott explore hidden stories in mathematics

Professor Susan Kelly and student Megan Scott traveled to Washington, D.C. during spring break to analyze the work of Gloria Ford Gilmer, a pioneer in ethnomathematics and the first African American woman to have her mathematical papers archived in the Library of Congress (LOC). 

Kelly's motivation for this research is rooted in her two-decade-long pursuit of uncovering the untold stories of mathematicians.  

“For about 20 years I have pursued my research on math history stories that focus on individual mathematicians, telling the stories of their mathematics and their lives in general,” says Kelly, who teaches in UWL’s Department of Mathematics & Statistics. “I look for individuals that highlight the diversity of mathematicians — women, mathematicians of color, immigrants, mathematicians who did amazing things in and out of mathematics.”

Megan Scott at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Kelly was asked by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African American studies at Harvard, to write STEM-related biographies for the Oxford African American Studies Center. In her research, Kelly discovered Gloria Ford Gilmer and enlisted the help of Megan Scott, a junior majoring in mathematics education, to help her write Gilmer’s biography.

The opportunity to delve into Gilmer's work resonated with Scott's passion for effective mathematics education.  

“With me being an education major, Gilmer was the perfect person for me to study as her research was primarily in the education part of math,” Scott says. “More specifically, her primary research was in ethnomathematics, which, simply put, is making math more engaging by incorporating a student's community and/or culture into the teachings of mathematics.”  

At the Library of Congress, Scott and Kelly sifted through Gilmer's scholarly work, which was added to the LOC manuscript collection in January.

“For this collection, photography was allowed, so anything of interest got photographed. Between the two of us, we have about 1,000 photos,” Scott says. “Once we got back to La Crosse, we carefully read through our materials to find the information we wanted.”

The main reading room at the Library of Congress. Photos of Kelly and Scott's work room were not permitted.

While in D.C., Kelly and Scott met with historians like Josh Levy and Pang Xiong, who illuminated Gilmer's legacy by acquiring and processing the Gilmer collection for public use. Levy and Xiong, with their expertise, helped direct Kelly and Scott to materials that were most relevant to their needs.

“Josh Levy (historian of science and technology) and Pang Xiong (the collection’s archivist) were so helpful and enjoyable to work with,” Kelly says. “Levy has worked to bring more diversity to the library’s collection, and both were eager to share what they had learned after spending much time with this collection.” 

For Kelly, the trip will further enrich her courses by weaving in narratives that celebrate the diversity and richness of mathematics. 

“I tend to share many stories I learn from my history research with the students in classes I teach,” Kelly says. “I like this natural way of pointing out mathematicians who students likely never heard about and who represent a more diverse view of mathematics.” 

Scott's reflections on Gilmer's work will help her make teaching effective and exciting for her future students. 

“Researching Dr. Gilmer's work made me realize just how much room the teaching of mathematics has to grow,” Scott says. “The main aspect of teaching that Gilmer talks about is getting students to care. The easiest way to make that happen is to tie mathematics ideas to their community and, in general, their interests. These ideas are, fundamentally, what ethnomathematics says we should do.” 


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