From Dateline (April 22, 2004)
NSF Funds Study Into Utilizing American
Indian Symbols to Teach Mathematics
by Dave Reid
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
“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
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.