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Ethnomathematics in the classroom

Back in 1999, a science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered that fractal geometry was apparent in the designs of many cultures in Africa. Since then, he developed Web tools covering a broad range of subjects, from the design of cornrow hairstyles to Mangbetu art, and from Navajo rugs to Yupik parka patterns or even Latin music.

Back in 1999, a science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute discovered that fractal geometry was apparent in the designs of many cultures in Africa. Since then, he developed Web tools focused on ethnomathematics -- the interaction of mathematics and culture. These tools cover a broad range of subjects, from the design of cornrow hairstyles to Mangbetu art, and from Navajo rugs to Yupik parka patterns or even Latin music. Recently, he decided to use these tools to see if they could spark student interest in mathematics. And he found that "students who used the design tools for two hours per day over a two-week period displayed a statistically significant increase in their attitudes toward computers." But read more...

Here is an introduction from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

[Ron Eglash, an associate professor of science and technology studies at RPI,] has uncovered mathematics embedded in the designs of various aspects of native and contemporary culture, from traditional beadwork and basket weaving to modern hairstyles and music. Using the discovery, he’s developed a series of interactive, Web-based teaching tools that are capturing the interest -- and imagination -- of students in math classes across the country.

Below is an example of the use of one of his "Culturally-Situated Design Tools" (CSDT), the Cornrow Curves (Credit: Ron Eglash, RPI). On the right, you can see an original hair style selected by a student. On the left is the student's simulation generated by the parameters in the center control panel.

Eglash's Cornrow Curves tool

And here are two more examples realized with this Web tool (Credit: Ron Eglash, RPI).

Eglash's Cornrow Curves usages

[On the right, you can see the design created by] an African American student whose father came from Ethopia; she titled this design "Tisissat" and added the comment "I named this after the largest waterfall in Ethopia. It shows strength and holding people together."
[The design on the left] is from a student who self-identified as Puerto Rican. He was a "problem student," disrupting the class and not getting much done. He finally hit on the idea of making simulations of snowflakes. He researched real snowflakes on the web, and figured out how to get the cornrow software to make the proper angles for 6-fold symmetry and the proper scaling ratios for its arms. It was an enormous triumph for him.

As you can see, students were very pleased to use these tools and here are preliminary results gathered from these experiments.

Preliminary surveys of students – 83 percent of which were under-represented minorities -- who used the design tools for two hours per day over a two-week period displayed a statistically significant increase in their attitudes toward computers, compared to 175 randomly selected students who had not used a CSDT. The statistical upsurge in the first group of students may indicate an increase in positive attitudes toward IT careers for students exposed to CSDTs, according to Eglash.

Below is another example of utilization of these Web tools: a "Mangbetu Design pattern created by a student for artistic purposes rather than simulation of an artifact" (Credit: Ron Eglash, RPI).

Eglash's Mangbetu Design tool

And here is another quote from Eglash about using these tools for education.

"Making real-world connections -- especially connections that tie in students' heritage cultures -- in math instruction has been recognized as increasingly important by educators. Culturally situated design tools provide a flexible space to do that, allowing students to reconfigure their relationship between culture, mathematics, and technology," said Eglash.

If you want more information, the research work has been published by the American Anthropologist journal under the title "Culturally Situated Design Tools: Ethnocomputing from Field Site to Classroom" (Vol. 108, No. 2, pp. 347-362, June 2006). Here are two links to the abstract and to the full paper (Microsoft Word format, 33 pages, 1.64 MB) from which the above illustrations have been extracted.

You might also want to read another paper, "Ethnocomputing with Native American Design."

Finally, you can use all these Culturally-Situated Design Tools for free -- and see if your interest in maths and culture is improving.

Sources: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute news release, June 23, 2006; and various web sites

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