Campus: CSU Fullerton -- May 4, 2004

Cal State Fullerton Professor Explores Use of American Indian Traditions in Teaching Math

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

“Redman truly was the person to ‘light the fire,’ an important metaphor in American Indian cultures,” said Funkhouser.

The mathematics education specialist was on a sabbatical leave from the University of Wyoming at the time and was conducting research at the University of Washington and the University of Montana.

Now an associate professor of mathematics at Cal State Fullerton, Funkhouser was struck by the enormous possibilities of incorporating American Indian cultural traditions into existing undergraduate math courses. One clear example: the wide variety of shapes and angles found in tribal sand paintings and teepee designs, which are based on American Indian 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 for a course on the foundations of geometry, for example, he explained that students would complete problems from a traditional text and then work on a supplemental problem sheet related to American Indian art and design, and their connection to Euclidean and transformational geometries.
Funkhouser’s insight into these possibilities has translated into a $99,627 National Science
Foundation grant project that, if successful, could lead to a full-blown exploration of the use of American Indian elements into the undergraduate mathematics curriculum.

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

The initial aim of the project is to develop prototypes of math materials based on the mathematical traditions of American Indian peoples, and then integrate these elements into selected undergraduate courses at CSUF, the University of Wyoming and Turtle Mountain Tribal College in North Dakota.

“These could then be made available for use at other universities, colleges — especially those with American Indian student populations,” said Funkhouser.

The project is supported by the International Study Group on Ethnomathematics and members of tribes throughout the West, such as the Ogalala-Lakota, Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Navajo. Program participants include university and community college faculty members, including members of tribal colleges and community colleges serving American Indian students.

Contacts: Charles Funkhouser, (714) 278-5158,
Dave Reid, (714) 278-4855,

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