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Of Dedication, Challenge, Tenacity

Galileo on Trial in Italy

Painting of Galileo Galilei before Roman inquisition, by Cristiano Banti.

In 2004, Dr. Laura Coffin Koch led a course titled Great Minds of the Renaissance. The course, taught mostly in Italy, focused on the scientific stars of the Renaissance—Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Galileo. Koch gravitated to Galileo in particular because of his dedication and challenges, primarily, his tenacity in taking on religious dogma while promoting his scientific understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Koch, Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor of Mathematics in the University’s College of Education and Human Development, sees the astronomer’s struggles in many of the conflicts people face today. For example, the practice of relegating women to “caretaking” fields such as teaching and nursing has discouraged many women from participating in STEM studies, the notion for this being that women were inherently unsuited for such fields. 

“Although numbers always made sense to me and I wanted to become a computer scientist or engineer, I was told that those were ‘male fields’,” says Koch. She notes that her father was a scientist and loved to teach her about how things worked, and that she was energized and encouraged at home to delve deeper into areas involving mathematics and science. Unfortunately, at the time she went to college, there were few opportunities for women in math except teaching. Koch recalls that as an undergraduate and graduate student, she only had one female math professor, and that was for statistics. 

Early in her career, Koch decided to investigate why women appeared to struggle with math in school. The women she surveyed reported that by the 7th grade, they knew they couldn't do math. As Koch dug deeper, she determined it wasn't that they were incapable of learning math, but rather, it was the way in which they were being taught. When she, as a teacher, changed the way she taught math, her female students excelled. She went on to develop Women of Mathematics, a seminar that not only promotes her successful teaching methods, but challenges the damaging stereotypes related to women and mathematics while celebrating the many role models now working in the field.  

Dedication, challenge, tenacity. Clearly this modern mathematician was drawn to the 17th-century polymath for a reason.

Join us April 17 for Galileo on Trial in Italy, when Koch will discuss how the great thinker’s now-renowned contributions to math and science came into conflict with the most powerful institution in Europe and perhaps the world, during post-Renaissance Italy.

Published on March 26, 2019