Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Math plus fiction equals DU freshmen seminar

‘Once upon a time’ is not a phrase most students think of when signing up for a math course. 

But DU mathematics Professor Allegra Reiber’s first-year seminar, Mathematics through Fiction, offered more than just numbers and calculations. It focused on the creative aspects of math by introducing students to mathematical ideas through fictional stories and anecdotes.  

Content for the fall quarter came primarily from the mathematical novels The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzenberger, The Man Who Counted by Malba Tahan and Flatland by Edwin Abbott. The course also included some short stories from the Fantasia Mathematica collection. Lecture discussions and homework topics were inspired by the novels’ connections to the math the students are learning.

“Math is based on imagination and creative ideas,” Reiber says. “The mathematical concepts studied in this course are not looked at in common lecture format. The students find math less intimidating through fiction.”

“[The class] is certainly not conventional math,” says Anita Balakrishnan, a freshman public policy major from Pueblo, Colo. “Reading fiction allowed me to understand very abstract and advanced mathematical concepts that would have been very difficult to learn in a conventional class.

Reiber says that by integrating critical reading, critical thinking and creative writing students are able to develop a new understanding of how mathematics works by relating it to the human experience. 

The course was aimed at students with little mathematical background and covers many topics, including infinity, Pascal’s triangle, dimension, geometry and number theory.

“The course is a medley of ideas that come together,” Reiber says. “Math is not just a tool to balance our check books. It is a way of thinking, and I want my students to come out of the class understanding that.”

Reiber’s students also were required to write their own mathematical “fictions,” or stories, for the course. By writing the creative pieces, students saw the possibilities of math as a language communicating ideas and concepts.

“If you are a very conceptual learner it is a great option,” Balakrishnan says. “I am a mathematics lover, but it is not my best subject, so I thought this course would be a good fit for me.”

“[The course] is really all about where we can go from here,” Reiber says. “I am always impressed with the way the students’ math skills grow from the beginning to the end of the course.”

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