By Christi Fish
Public Affairs Specialist
(March 24, 2009)—Tucked away in a small office on the third floor of UTSA’s winding Multidisciplinary Studies Building, Lawrence Swienciki, UTSA adjunct assistant professor of mathematics, is eager to take his students on a trip around the world. Swienciki is an expert in the history of math, and for more than 30 years, he has researched the development and use of mathematics in an array of cultures.
Surprisingly, however, Swienciki did not plan to specialize in the history of math… He just wanted to be a teacher.
Swienciki’s professional career began in 1969, the same year UTSA was established. A new graduate with a mathematics master’s degree, Swienciki was hired by the East Side Union High School District in San Jose, Calif., to teach courses ranging from algebra to calculus. Despite the varying degrees of difficulty of his courses, he used a consistent teaching style — the same interactive method that he experienced at his own high school.
"I’m a fan of participation. I like classroom interaction," said Swienciki. "When I was teaching at the high school, I would put problems on the board for my students to solve. Every student would participate. The students would solve their problems and explain to the class how they did it. It was a great experience — one, I think, that helped the students develop strong leadership skills as well as critical thinking and analysis skills."
The interaction in Swienciki’s classroom allowed him to gauge how well his students understood the curriculum. Moreover, it brought him to the realization that the prescribed textbooks were not enough. He set out to change that.
In 1972, after his third year of teaching, Swienciki developed a booklet he could use in his classroom as an instructional supplement. It included alternative approaches for understanding difficult mathematical concepts, and it worked. Shortly after, word spread about Swienciki’s proprietary resource, and the math teacher was offered a publishing contract to write four similar booklets for algebra teachers.
By 1980, Swienciki’s publishing gig had grown. He had written nine additional booklets, and he was under contract with three educational publishing companies. Then, his district office threw him for a loop. It added another teaching mandate to its saturated math curriculum: Integrate multicultural studies in all math classes.
"How in the world do we introduce that?" Swienciki thought. "What more will they have us do?"
The new mandate forced Swienciki to do some problem solving of his own, and unable to avoid the new district standard, he began researching the origins of mathematics in Mexico.
Before long, Swienciki had a strategy. Because technology was making students dependent on visual aids, he would display the new multicultural requirement through illustrations. Tapping his research, he developed his first classroom poster — a bilingual display on the history of math in Mexico.
Because Swienciki had published educational materials before developing his poster, he felt comfortable with the process of finding a publisher and started making phone calls. However, despite his tenacity, none of his contacts in the publishing business would take a risk on printing posters about mathematics history.
"There’s no way your poster will generate enough ROI to make this worth it for us," the publisher told him.
But Swienciki was determined, so he published the posters himself. Using Adobe Illustrator, he designed the artwork, contacted printers, reviewed estimates and negotiated contracts to create posters of the highest quality. His posters included metallics, which required five- or six-color processing, as well as a UV coating to keep them from fading.
From 1980 to 2000, Swienciki continued researching the history of mathematics in various cultures. His research led him to develop 16 more posters, focusing on the history of math in the United States, Africa, Europe, Ireland, Russia, Arabia, China, Japan, Korea, Babylon, Egypt, India and among the Aztecs, the Inca, the Maya and the Navajo.
Eventually, Key Curriculum Press (KCP) approached Swienciki about marketing his posters and Swienciki agreed. He couldn’t refuse the opportunity. He was printing his posters for $1.25 each, and KCP was willing to pay him $4 per poster. KCP then sold them at retail for $10 each.) The agreement was lucrative for Swienciki; at its peak, grossing him more than $100,000 per year.
In 1995, Swienciki earned his Ph.D. in the history of mathematics and edged toward retirement. In 1997, he brought his career as a high school math teacher to a close.However, he did not remain retired for long.
On the heels of retiring, Swienciki researched, wrote and published another project for KCP, a book titled “The Ambitious Horse, Ancient Chinese Mathematics Problems.” The teacher resource challenged algebra and geometry students by offering Chinese approaches to complex math problems and side-by-side comparisons of Western geometry proofs and traditional Chinese solutions. It also introduced students to the ancient Chinese use of the decimal system.
"The Chinese have an interesting way of approaching math," Swienciki said. "If you study the history of math in China, you’ll find ways to solve complex problems with new strategies not seen in Western mathematics. For example, there are problems in surveying, which can be done without the use of trigonometry.
In 2007, Swienciki decided retirement was not for him, and he joined the math department at UTSA. He now works alongside Sandy Norman, an associate professor in mathematics, who he says is very supportive of his work.
So, what’s next for the mathematics historian?
Swienciki is completing an eight-poster series about the mathematicians of ancient Greece. To date, he has completed posters about Pythagoras, Archimedes, Thales, Euclid, Eratosthenes and Pappus of Alexandria. The collection, to be finalized before July, also will include posters about Eudoxus and Apollonius of Perga.
Additionally, he is working on an oversized math history timeline to display in libraries. “The process of math development is interconnected,” said Swienciki. “Math wasn’t just developed by one culture. Each one of these cultures is a platform for another.”
Swienciki also is developing a third math poster series on three-dimensional geometric models. The posters will be visual aids for students in the classroom. But, accompanying the posters a multimedia resource will be included to help teachers better explain how to create three-dimensional geometric models.
» At the Key Curriculum Press Web site, learn more about Swienciki’s poster series: