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Research

NSF Funds Study Into Utilizing American Indian Symbols to Teach Mathematics

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BY DAVE REID
From Dateline (April 22, 2004)

Charles Funkhouser
Charles Funkhouser

When an Arapaho Indian student named Josephine Redman made a presentation on the relationship between mathematics and the beadwork she learned from her grandmother, an idea hit Charles Funkhouser.

“Redman truly was the person to ‘light the fire,’ an important metaphor in Native American cultures,” said Funkhouser, who was on sabbatical leave from the University of Wyoming at the time and conducting research at the University of Washington.

Now an associate professor of mathematics at Cal State Fullerton, Funkhouser was struck by the enormous possibilities of incorporating Native American cultural traditions into existing undergraduate math courses. One example: the wide variety of shapes and angles found in tribal sand paintings and teepee designs, which are based on Native American geometric conceptualizations, could be utilized to supplement traditional elements in teaching geometry, the branch of mathematics dealing with points, lines and figures.

In a proposed lesson on the foundations of geometry, for example, students would complete problems from a traditional text and then work on a supplemental problem sheet related to Native American art and design, and its connection to Euclidean and transformational geometries, said Funkhouser.

The professor’s insight into these possibilities has translated into a $99,627 National Science Foundation grant-funded project that, if successful, could lead to a full-blown exploration of the use of Native American elements in undergraduate mathematics.

“This curriculum,” he said, “would not be limited just to classes comprised of Native American students, but students from all backgrounds who would benefit by the addition of the rich cultural heritage of Native American mathematics.”

The project’s initial purpose is to develop material prototypes based on the mathematical traditions of Native Americans and integrate these elements into selected courses on campus, at the University of Wyoming and at Turtle Mountain Tribal College in North Dakota, according to Funkhouser.

“These [courses] could then be made available for use at other universities and colleges – especially those with Native American student populations,” he added.

The project is supported by the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics and tribal members throughout the West, including the Ogalala-Lakota, Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Navajo.

Program participants will include college faculty, including members of tribal colleges and community colleges serving Native American students.


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