L. Edwards and C. Goff.
"Mathematics and Television." Encyclopedia of Mathematics and
Society, edited by S. Greenwald and J. Thomley, Salem Press, 2011.
Mathematics and Television
Leigh H. Edwards, Florida State University
Christopher D. Goff, University of the Pacific
Like many other academic disciplines, mathematics has found its way to the small screen, in the
form of children’s educational programming, various puzzle challenges on reality television and
other game shows, and mathematically talented (often nerdy) characters on a variety of scripted
This article focuses on these categories of programming and their attendant themes,
rather than undertaking the Sisyphean task of listing all instances of mathematics on television.
(Nevertheless, Polster and Ross have made a valiant attempt.
See the References for more
It is important to note that television viewership is determined though the statistically based
Nielsen ratings, which networks use to calculate advertising revenue.
As a result, the fate of a
show is often tied to its Nielsen ratings.
Mathematics not only helps structure the production
dynamics of television but also appears as a key recurring theme, both shaping and reflecting
how society views mathematics and mathematicians at different times.
Some of these programs promote mathematics as an exciting learning area (often in children’s
educational programming) or as a technical skill which can give characters power and control.
Problematic stereotypes persist, especially the still-common portrayal of mathematicians
predominantly as white men.
The stereotype of the mathematically talented character as a “nerd”
is also prevalent and suggests that popular TV representations of math reflect both respect for the
technical knowledge and fear about an expertise sometimes portrayed as mystifying or as the
exclusive domain of obsessive “geeks.”
Children’s Educational Programming
Sarah J. Greenwald, Appalachian State University
Jill E. Thomley, Appalachian State University
The focus in children’s educational programming that addresses mathematics is often on
encouraging children to be excited about the subject area and to help them master skills and gain
Most notably, the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), founded in 1967,
ultimately created or inspired much of children’s educational programming. Funded by federal
and private sources, CTW designed Sesame Street to teach letter and number skills, as well as
foundations of critical thinking, to preschoolers. The program revolutionized children’s
programming when it premiered in 1969 and has been broadcast continually ever since. Its core