Math Beyond the Numbers

Watching a ceramic tile worker draw a circle using a nail and thread provided Stephanie Byrd and Lauren Frazier a real world example of how culture and mathematics are connected in Morocco.

The GSU mathematics education students are taking “Ethnomathematics and its role in sociocultural traditions” this semester, a unique College of Education course that combines teaching students the relationship between mathematics and culture in the classroom and then allowing them to explore what they are learning about by studying abroad. The class recently spent their spring break vacation in Fez, Morocco, from Feb. 28 to March 6.

“I believe that teachers having an ethnomathematics perspective leads to a better understanding of how different cultures influence the development of mathematics,” said Byrd, a College of Education doctoral candidate and a teacher at Clayton County’s Forest Park High School. “One of the best parts of the study abroad experience was seeing the craftsmen and craftswomen level of patience, attentiveness and precision to their skills. The arts and crafts are a very intrinsic part of the sociocultural aspect of the Moroccan people.”

During the first weeks of the course, the students learned about several mathematical ideas that come from cultural activities such as creating calendars, art and decoration, divination and counting schemes. They also had discussions about connections between ethnomathematics and mathematics education in schools.

Iman Chahine, the program’s director, said Fez was the ideal place to provide the students international examples of how different cultural groups interpret mathematical concepts in different ways than typical mathematics textbooks. Some of the highlights of the trip for the students, included visiting historical sites, like the Old Medina and the ancient Roman city Volubilis, and talking with master carpenters and tile makers restoring houses from the ninth century.

“Fez has been labeled by the UNESCO as the oldest urban, car free city in the whole world,” Chahine said. “We visited areas in which you see architecture where the designs have very significant geometric structures, which they use in the design of many attraction sites in Morocco.”

For example, Chahine discussed the use of 8-pointed stars in Moroccan architecture, which has significance in Islamic traditions.

“They use 8-pointed stars, 12-pointed stars and 24-pointed stars and each of these geometric figures have social and religious significance to the people in Fez,” she said.  “Every figure, every design, every shape has a meaning and a social connotation attached to it.”

The trip to Morocco was the second ethnomathematics trip for Frazier. She took a similar study abroad trip with Chahine to explore indigenous mathematical knowledge systems in South Africa last summer.

“My past study abroad experience seemed to raise people’s interest in me during interviews, and the trip to Morocco gave me more credibility as someone dedicated to culturally relevant teaching,” Frazier said. “I feel that my experiences abroad give me an advantage in the world of education, and opens the door for me to educate other teachers.”

Chahine has been teaching the course since 2009. She says she enjoys this new form of mathematics, which she hopes is better preparing GSU students to explain the relevance of mathematics outside of the classroom.

“Because of these immersion experiences, our mathematics teachers see mathematics in the classroom through a completely different lens now,” she said. “They see how it evolves and transpires in informal, non-conventional settings and they are able to think of more ways to engage students with ideas and problem solving tasks that come from out of school contexts.”

April 2, 2012