Math camp teaches students to solve problems in fun, creative ways
Navajo, Apache, Hopi students participating in event organized by Navajo Nation Math Circles Project
FARMINGTON — In a classroom at Navajo Preparatory School today, Henry Fowler, a co-director for the Navajo Nation Math Circles Project, was breaking down a mathematics equation with the help of 16 students.
The students — from middle and high schools in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah — sat in small clusters and verbalized their answers to Fowler.
"You don't have to be so prescribed by only doing the textbook way, the teacher way. Be creative, make up your own story," Fowler said before returning to the math problem on the dry-erase board.
This week, Navajo, Apache and Hopi students are participating in a camp organized by the Navajo Nation Math Circles Project. The camp is pairing 35 students with mathematicians from universities across the United States to work on challenging mathematical problems by using creative techniques and critical-thinking skills.
Irvilinda Bahe, 16, who will be a junior at Navajo Prep in the fall, said this is her fourth year attending the camp.
"The problems that they have (are) what I find interesting and intriguing. You don't see those kinds of problems in math classes at school," Bahe said.
The math circles project and camp were developed after Fowler, the faculty chair for the division of mathematics, physics and technology at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., noticed that math literacy and education were not being promoted on the Navajo Nation.
In 2012, Fowler met Tatiana Shubin, a professor in the department of mathematics and statistics at San José State University in San Jose, Calif., who introduced him to the concept of math circles.
They worked together to organize the first math camp for high school students in 2012 at the Diné College campus.
Another focus of the project is to boost the number of Navajo students entering careers that center on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Five years later, the project has grown to include a math festival during the school year, as well as workshops for teachers on the Navajo Nation to improve teaching skills by incorporating concepts championed in math circles.
Bob Klein, an associate professor in the department of math at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, said in math circles, the student's attention is focused on problem solving, rather than the steps used to find the solution.
"We do this in part because it's a fun thing to do. It uses our love of curiosity, patterns, designs and thinking critically," Klein said.
He added that while the primary focus is math, the camp includes cultural teachings and physical activities.
The camp is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The funding is also helping organizers expand the program to other tribes, including the 19 pueblos in New Mexico.
"It's an opportunity to take the model and see how it works in other places," Klein said. "So far, it's going very well."
This is the second year that Devon Lynch, who will be a seventh-grader at Tséhootsooí Middle School in Fort Defiance, Ariz., has participated in the camp.
"I like math. I'm obsessed with it, and I look forward to it so I can find success," he said.
Lynch, 12, said the exercises he has worked on have helped him think beyond methods he learned in math class, and that is why he returned this year.
The camp continues through Saturday.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.