Making connections is what mathematicians do. In the case of the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles, we use a the time-tested “Math Circle” model to connect mathematicians from around the world with students and K-12 teachers serving those (primarily indigenous) students .
We visit schools, hold professional development workshops, and work directly with teachers, parents, community leaders, administrators, and students to form Math Circles for Students and Math Teachers’ Circles.
Circles are a 100-year old model of mathematicians sharing fun and engaging problems and getting people to have fun work together to solve them. In some cases, even young kids work on open problems–problems that have never been solved by anyone. In ALL cases, the goal is fun and capacity building.
Our approach to sharing amazing mathematical problems grows out of a long history of math circles as described above. Our approach of doing this in indigenous communities around the world grows out of our founders’ experience building and leading the successful Navajo Nation Math Circles Project (USA), the subject of a PBS documentary Navajo Math Circles.
A signature part of the approach developed there involves recognizing that
changing the way someone thinks about themselves as mathematical problem solvers requires acknowledging the ways someone thinks about their cultural identities — especially when those identities are tied to historical exclusion from the very STEM participation that Math Circles’ aspired to stimulate. As such, workshops, summer camps, professional development, and school visits co-value mathematical problem solving and culture, and seek the collaboration of indigenous leaders to co-present sessions related to cultural traditions, language, and history.
As such, we provide the setting to foster participants’ ability to say proudly, “I am Navajo (or other cultural affiliation) and I do math.”
Building Trust. We begin by establishing contacts and working together to build a local network of interest.
Building Collaboration. We make it possible for mathematicians with experience leading math circles to visit schools in the area and to hold teacher workshops for professional development and to expose a broad audience to the idea of math circles. We further look for partners who can bring the cultural knowledge and capacity to be sure that we co-value mathematics and traditional ways.
Building Capacity. We focus on building infrastructure to support ongoing math teachers’ circle meetings, professional development workshops, after-school teacher-led student math circles, and summer math camps. These are all tuned to the community’s interest and needs.
Building Sustainability and Growing Participation. The long-term goal is locally-sustained math circles that participate in the broader network of math circles for students and teachers in the U.S. and world. There are currently more than 100 math teachers’ circles and more than 200 student circles in the U.S. alone. Further, students and teachers everywhere deserve access to the highest-quality mathematics.
Math circles focus on engaging problems as opposed to exercises. School mathematics and the accountability systems that attend it are grounded in solving exercises where as life and the demands of the future depend on the ability to solve problems.
What’s the difference between an exercise and a problem? An exercise, like a push-up, is something that you know how to complete before you start it–you do it to get stronger, faster, better technique, etc. A problem, by contrast, is a task that you don’t know how to complete when you start. You have to use strategies, fail, be creative, work with others, persist, struggle, and, despite all of this, many problems remain unsolved! The future Scientists, Mathematicians, Engineers, Artists, Parents, Citizens, (and on and on) will all need to be adept at solving problems, rather than exercises.
Math circles thrive on problems. We find problems hidden in everyday games and use those games, patterns, and simple starting points as paths into deep and engaging mathematics, using the processes and strategies used everyday by the world’s most successful STEM professionals. Student and teacher participants get to engage with mathematicians on what are sometimes called “swimming pool problems“– meaning that the problem allows for people to “jump in” where they feel most comfortable, be it the shallow end of the pool or the deep end. These problems have also been called “low-floor, high-ceiling” problems — meaning that everyone can get started (low-floor) and everyone can find challenge (high-ceiling).
Here’s an example of a problem we’ve used with teachers and with student in grades 5-12 (simultaneously!). Thanks to Math4Love for this excellent and stimulating problem! Squareable Numbers (PDF) Like that problem? We’ve got thousands more. Contact us!
The Alliance Grows
Drs. Tatiana Shubin and Bob Klein realized the potential of this model to engage communities outside of the Navajo Nation and, in 2017, founded the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles. We have worked with indigenous students, teachers, and leaders from the Highlands of Guatemala, various parts of Mexico, and Nepal. More than 50 mathematicians from around the world are part of our network of support.
Current tribal participation in the Alliance includes students, teachers, mathematicians and other leaders from the Hopi, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Pomo, Blackfeet, and Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. We are actively seeking members of other tribes to partner with us and to serve as local “champions” for the power of mathematics to change lives.
We are humbled to have the founding support of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. We seek additional organizations who might include our efforts (and our impacts) in their portfolios. We are also looking for mathematics professionals with experience leading math circles to join us in the effort. Contact us if you are interested!