Guest Post: A Pi Day Lesson for History Teachers

As math teachers around the country gear up for the one day a year some students get excited about math tomorrow, (at least if my remeberance of high school is correct), I am happy to share this History of Pi (Day) Lesson from my friend and former colleauge, John Mcrann, of the Bronx Lab School.

I’d like to thank Steve for letting me “math-evangelize” through his blog.  One of my biggest goals as a mathematician and math teacher is to connect my students to the ways in which they use mathematical reasoning in their lives outside of my class. One way that I’ve had some success doing this in the past is to teach about the history of the discipline – empowering students to see math concepts as solutions developed by other humans to solve human problems rather than problems on a page.  On pi day, I shared this lesson with some history colleagues at our school who were interested in these ideas and I submit them here for anyone who’s interested. Please let me know what you think.

Pi Day History Activity (Download the Power Point)


  • Students will be able to analyze why numeric quantities were important to human development by discussing the development of numbers in early human civilization.
  • Students will be able to explain the relationship between mathematical precision and human innovation by writing about the history of pi and the problems it has been used to solve.

Introduce the idea of learning about the history of math on pi day – see slide 1 – 1 min

Do Now – 7 min total

Imagine you lived in east Africa in an early human society 2 million years ago.  You are a member of a hunting team that left the group to find food.  Your society has developed language, but no number system.

1.  Think of a way that you could communicate that you saw 12 zebra on your hunt WITHOUT writing a number.

Give students 3 min to think and write down answers.

Volunteers demonstrate their method of communicating “12” without a number – 2 min

Mini lesson (slides 3 and 4) – Students read slides.  Explain the ideas on them.  – 3 min

Writing assignment – 5 min

Analyze the table below:


Time/Place Mathematician credited Estimate for Π Problems this estimate was used to solve
Ancient Asia Unknown 3 The size of vases and urns
950 BCE: North Africa Unknown 3.1604 Land navigation in circles
250 CE: China Liu Hui 3.141024 Sea navigation in circles, basic astronomy
1727 CE: Switzerland Leoner Euler (pronounced “Oiler”) 3.14159… (Euler developed a method that can be used to calculate Π to thousands of decimal places. The development of Calculus, many problems modern physics and astronomy

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