Black New Orleans Teens Provide Trigonometry Proofs for Pythagorean Theorem, Once Thought To Be Impossible

Two teens in New Orleans joined an exclusive club of mathematicians last year when they discovered trigonometry proofs for Pythagorean’s Theorem.

Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson were in their senior year at the all-girl Catholic school St. Mary’s Academy in December 2022 when they joined a school-wide math contest that came with a cash reward, CBS News reported. Students of the academy, started by a Black nun for young Black women after the Civil War, were tasked with finding a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. The winner would receive a $500 cash prize and bragging rights.

“I was motivated because there was a monetary incentive,” Jackson said.

“Cause I was like, $500 is a lot of money. So I — I would like to at least try,” Johnson added.

The participants were given a few prompts on how to come up with proof, and the rest was on them. While Johnson and Jackson were both familiar with the Pythagorean Theorem’s a² + b² = c² concept, the idea of coming up with a proof using only trigonometry was considered nearly impossible.

With geometry and only a little trigonometry under their belt, their mission of coming up with proof using only trigonometry wasn’t easy, but they were up for the challenge.

“I was like, ‘I started something. I need to finish it,’” Johnson said.

The students spent two months during the fall/winter semester working on the proof, and by December 2022, Jackson and Johnson joined mathematician Jason Zimba, who in 2009 became one of only a few to develop a proof of the theorem using trigonometry. The since-graduated scholars never considered themselves math geniuses but went on to receive global praise after submitting their proofs to an American Mathematical Society conference in Atlanta in March 2023.

After their proof “blew up,” Jackson and Johnson received a write-up in South Korea, a shout-out from former first lady Michelle Obama, a commendation from the governor, and keys to the city of New Orleans. Jackson cites what she believes is the reason behind their worldwide recognition.

“Probably because we’re African American, one. And we’re also women. So I think — oh, and our age. Of course our ages probably played a big part,” she said.

“I’d like to be actually celebrated for what it is — a great mathematical achievement.”

Jackson is currently on a full scholarship in the pharmacy school at Xavier University in New Orleans while Johnson, the class valedictorian, is studying environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.

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