SUNY Potsdam’s Jessie studies ancient math in Mexico

POTSDAM – Picture yourself in Mexico, mesmerized by Mayan and Aztec symbols, and captivated by the beauty of the Templo Mayor. Now picture yourself earning credits for it.

That is exactly what students and faculty from The State University of New York at Potsdam and Clarkson University did this winter from Jan. 6 to 16 through a SUNY Potsdam study abroad course.

The SUNY Potsdam students included Katelyn Jessie of Tupper Lake, whose major is mathematics and computer engineering, through SUNY Potsdam’s 3/2 program with Clarkson University.

Under the instruction of Blair Madore and Cheryl Miller from SUNY Potsdam and Jeanna Matthews from Clarkson, eight students traveled to Mexico to participate in hands-on learning experiences involving Meso-American culture and mathematics.

SUNY Potsdam has a partnership with The Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Hidalgo in Mexico, but this was the first time that students were able to travel there. The math component of the trip made this one of the most unique study abroad programs Potsdam has offered to date.

Several aspects of a normal classroom setting were integrated into the curriculum of this 100-level course. However, the class was always on the move: Quizzes were taken during car rides, discussions were posed over dinner, and unlike in Potsdam, sunscreen and comfortable shoes were necessities.

Some of the highlights of the trip included visiting the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, the Tula Archaeological Site and Museum in Hidalgo and the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon in Teotihuacan. The students also got several chances to interact and explore with students from UAEH.

“I really liked Teotihuacan and the height of the temples. I have a fear of heights, so I felt great walking to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that everyone should have,” said Myriah Dengel, a senior Spanish major.

Classwork included scavenger hunts, tours of museums and other math puzzles and projects. Focusing on Meso-American culture, students learned about the history of mathematics in several cultures, including Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. The students’ experiences helped them gain a greater understanding of mathematics and a greater appreciation for its contributors.

Junior mathematics student Britney Livingston said, “The learning experience was much different than that of a normal classroom setting. We had a lot of hands-on experiences which helped us see why math really matters and how it can be applied in real life situations.”

Math students at SUNY Potsdam know all about numbers and symbols, but when they traveled to Mexico, the Meso-American culture had them learning all over again. Students got to use and study real life artifacts, places, structures and symbols to gain a better understanding of math.

“Being immersed in the culture was a great experience; the university was very gracious and helpful. The way we learned was very unique because we got to see the math in conjunction with artifacts and landmarks,” junior mathematics and chemistry major Kathleen Morrissey said. “I found myself wanting to stay and learn more. I never thought Mexico would have had this big of an impact on me. I will remember this trip for the rest of my life.”

SUNY Potsdam has many opportunities to study abroad, but there have not been many opportunities like this tailored for mathematics majors. With the successful completion of the first session, the Department of Mathematics hopes to continue the program in the future with the support of UAEH and continued involvement from Clarkson University.