A Mathematics Village Transforms Pitzer Students’ Approach to STEM

Caro Harwell '24 stands in front of a black board and traces a finger along a diagram drawn on the board. Harwell wears a black and white striped shirt and has long blond hair. Green tree foliage is overhead and in the background.
Caro Harwell ’24

Claremont, Calif. — Jan. 25, 2024 —In the flourishing green mountains of Selçuk, Turkey, Caro Harwell ’24 and Charlotte Richards ’25 found an oasis of mathematics. Nesin Mathematics Village includes many sights: magnificent stone buildings and archways, bustling dormitories and tents overlooking the terrain, and outdoor classrooms with sunlight peeking through the tree canopy and shining on blackboards dappled with formulas and drawings. 

With funding from Pitzer’s Institute for Global/Local Action & Study (IGLAS), Harwell and Richards went to the village in the summer with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Bahar Acu. The two students were teaching assistants for Acu’s geometric topology class, which they had taken the semester before. In the village, Harwell and Richards (who are both mathematics majors) also took two classes about abstract algebra. 

Charlotte Richards stands with an instructor in front of a black chalkboard with various diagrams and writing. Richards has shoulder-length wavy brown hair and wears a dark dress with a pattern of bright multicolored symbols.
Charlotte Richards ’25

One of these courses was taught by Ali Nesin, the founder of the village. Harwell described the first day of class in vivid detail. After the students waited several minutes, Nesin burst through a vine-covered archway and asked, “What is a group?” Every session started the same way, diving into the discussion without preamble. 

“[Nesin] covered countless topics in the discipline, taking breaks only to challenge students to prove some theorem,” said Harwell. “The class reminded me of something out of the Classical era; the open-air classroom was covered in foliage and crawling with cats. It felt like the chalkboards were covered in [Nesin’s] art.” 

Nesin Mathematics Village immersed students in mathematics education and introduced them to instructors from different universities and cultures. Often students and teachers talked late into the night over a cup of tea. Harwell described the village as “an inviting and approachable environment for problem solving,” and that experience has stayed with Harwell since returning to Pitzer. 

Richards also learned to see mathematics in a new way. Before visiting the village, Richards struggled with the “feeling that mathematics was something to get through, a mountain to be conquered and then left.” Ironically it was on a mountain that Richards discovered there was more to the subject. 

Between attending lectures, checking out library books, and assisting in Acu’s class, Richards found new freedom in learning without worrying about exams or homework.  

“I was not thinking about passing a test, but instead simply learning for the sake of learning,” said Richards. “It dawned on me during a lecture; my relationship with mathematics never has to end. There is no mountain to conquer—there never was.” 

In a community that encouraged curiosity, Richards felt her uncertainties as a woman in STEM fall away. Richards has now built enough confidence to pursue a senior honors thesis in mathematics.  

While in Turkey, Harwell and Richards also experienced the country through excursions to Marmaris National Park and Izmir and by developing deep relationships with others at the mathematics village. 

“This practice of listening, of truly getting to know another’s life and culture so different from my own, was extremely meaningful,” said Harwell. “I will always reference the mathematics village as my favorite and most special highlight from my college career.” 

Caro Harwell '24 and Charlotte Richards ’25 sit together in an outdoor classroom and look over their shoulders to smile at the camera. In the background is the courtyard with flat rocks on the floor and green chalkboards and tree foliage.
Caro Harwell ’24 and Charlotte Richards ’25

About Pitzer College

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