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SUNY Potsdam, Clarkson students get Mexican experience

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POTSDAM — For many, learning math is akin to eating Brussels sprouts — but math took a group of students from two local universities on a 2,000-mile journey.

Eight mathematics students from SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University traveled to Pachuca, Mexico, over the winter break for a study-abroad experience.

“It was a lot of fun. It didn’t feel like we were studying math,” said Kathleen L. Morrissey, of Saratoga Springs, a SUNY Potsdam mathematics major. “We were doing something every hour of the day. We got to see everything while we were down there.”

While in Mexico, the group studied the history of mathematics at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo. The course deviated from its usual curriculum, tracing the origins of the western mathematical system through ancient civilizations in India, the Levant and the Arab peninsula, to discuss the mathematics of Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztecs and the Maya.

“It is very unusual to learn about ancient mathematics,” said Cheryl C. Miller, SUNY Potsdam mathematics professor. “Most of the math learned even in general maybe started out in the 1600s. You don’t hear about Mesoamerican mathematics or Egyptian mathematics or Babylonian mathematics. This history of math course was designed to introduce those things with a fairly lower-level course.”

The coursework involved the traditional lectures and classes, but also field trips to sites of historical and cultural significance.

“The idea was that we would spend most of our time on the campus, but we would alternate that time with day trips to sites and museums in Mexico to give students a chance to get a hands-on look,” said Blair F. Madore, SUNY Potsdam associate professor of mathematics.

The students examined ancient architecture at Teotihuacán and Tula.

“One of the simple exercises they did is they measured dimensions of a pyramid, weighed nearby rocks and had to make estimates of volume and mass of the pyramid, then did exercises to try to understand the kind of manpower involved in moving all that rock,” said Mr. Madore. “That really gives you a greater appreciation of what was involved. What we tend to think is they must have had some pretty damn good engineers.”

The experience also involved working directly with students at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo, said Jeanna N. Matthews, a Clarkson associate professor of computer science.

“The university was so good to us. They picked us up at the airport, they let us take their classes, they put us up to stay in their hotel, they provided us with vans that took us around everywhere. They were super good to us,” she said.

SUNY Potsdam has had a working relationship with its Mexican counterpart, said Mr. Madore, but until now it could not arrange a study-abroad experience.

“We found some good ways for some of his students to come to Potsdam, but we hadn’t found a good way to put together funding for sending our students there,” he said. “This course turned out to be the best idea that was manageable that would give our students a chance to do something fun and mathematical in Mexico.”

Students paid for their trip through course fees.

The trip included only one Clarkson student, but Ms. Matthews said more would like to become involved in the experience.

“There were a lot of Clarkson students who were interested, but it was too quick to turn it around and make it happen,” she said. “I hope it will continue to be open to them in the future.”

Mr. Madore said future SUNY Potsdam students would have an opportunity to travel to Pachuca.

“I will remember it for the rest of my life,” Ms. Morrissey said. “I want to go back and study there or even travel to another place would be great. I would love to go back to Pachuca or Mexico again.”

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