Math from an Aboriginal perspective

Faculty and staff at UBC’s Okanagan campus have designed a new foundational mathematics course that uses an Aboriginal perspective in the application of basic math concepts.

Although specifically geared to Aboriginal students in the Access studies program, the course is open to anyone who would like to gain a better understanding of math by combining Aboriginal thought and traditional mathematical training.

“Math is math—we’re just changing the way we look at math,” says Lyle Mueller, director of Aboriginal Programs and Services. “We’ve designed this course using a fairly common Aboriginal perspective to provide the framework of the lesson.”

The design of the course is based on an ancient symbol used by many First Nations people in North and South America: the medicine wheel. It expresses relationships in sets of four, with a focus on wholeness and interrelationships.

“It would be fair to say that an Aboriginal student with some traditional knowledge and understanding
of Aboriginal culture will find that the mathematical concepts and theories are broken down into a way that is familiar to them, and therefore perhaps easier to learn,” says Mueller.

The course, math 126, can serve as an introductory pre-calculus course, and provides an academic stepping stone for students wishing to pursue the sciences. It is a UBC Senate-approved, three-credit course designed by Mueller and mathematician Javad Tavakoli in consultation with the UBC Okanagan/Okanagan College Aboriginal Council.

“It’s really just a good way of organizing the often complex and interrelated concepts of math,” says Tavakoli. “Any student, no matter who they are, if they don’t understand math at the beginning, will either learn to hate it or they will quit it or fail it. This course offers students a different option to learn math—perhaps in a way that they can relate to or that inspires curiosity and understanding.

The official course book, which Mueller and Tavakoli have been working on for nearly five years, is in the final stages of development and will be ready for the winter semester.

Chris Alexander, a second-year Bachelor of Management student and member of the Westbank First Nation, took the course in 2009, passing with a mark above 80 per cent.

“I found the course challenging because I am a mature student,” says Alexander. “But the support from teachers’ assistants and Aboriginal Programs and Services was great.

“I hadn’t taken math in years. The course used the medicine wheel to help explain some of the problems, which made it easier for me to wrap my head around.”