by Claire Miller
As scholars discover more about the ways ancient civilizations used mathematical concepts, faculty who teach mathematics and math education are incorporating more culturally-specific knowledge into their courses.
These new discoveries have prompted Iman Chahine, assistant professor in the College of Education’s Department of Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology, and Margo Alexander from Georgia State University’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, to combine their courses on ethnomathematics–which highlights the mathematics learned outside of the classroom in various cultures–and the history of math to provide a clear account of the evolution of mathematics across ancient and contemporary cultures.
Chahine and Alexander are co-teaching this combined course to 23 undergraduate and graduate students–a mix of math majors from the College of Arts and Sciences and math education majors from the College of Education. These students not only learn the history behind specific mathematical concepts, but also see how different cultures teach and use mathematics in daily life.
“We started thinking about the commonalities between our courses so that we could design the syllabus in a way that gives one, continuous learning experience for students,” Chahine explained. “For example, Dr. Alexander will talk about mathematician Blaise Pascal and the Pascal triangle, and I’ll talk about the practices the Zulu people in South Africa do that are based on the same mathematical principle.”
In addition to the general coursework, students will also take a 10-day study abroad trip to South Africa in November to learn firsthand how indigenous peoples–many of whom have no school-acquired mathematical knowledge–incorporate math into their craftwork.
“We teach about the mathematician, the formulas and the theories they created, but when we come to contemporary cultures, we show them that similar theories are imbedded in practices of these indigenous communities that aren’t aware of Pascal’s triangle,” Chahine said. “We’re trying to show students that mathematics is a human endeavor, that it’s not only rules, numbers and symbols. Students often think mathematics is ability-based, but we’re asking them to look at how these communities are using mathematics and see how meaningful these concepts can be.”
This course not only gives the Department of Mathematics and Statistics its first study abroad program, but also reflects the university’s efforts to put collegiate curriculum in global contexts, Alexander said.
It also allows undergraduate and graduate students from different departments and colleges to share their knowledge and learn from each other’s experiences–a vital part of this course’s design.
“When we’re doing group activities, it’s very interesting to see the different backgrounds and insights these students bring to the classroom,” Chahine said.
Moving forward, Chahine and Alexander hope to continue offering the course in the spring and summer semesters with study abroad trips to Morocco, and they plan to collect data to see how the course impacts students’ attitudes toward math.
For more information about the Department of Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology, visit http://msit.gsu.edu/index.htm. To learn more about the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, visit http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwmat.