Professor expands math circles project to more Native Americans

A two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will help a Kansas State University mathematics professor expand his Navajo Nation Math Circles project to more Navajo Nation communities and serve various tribes in Washington state.

The grant to David Auckly is through the NSF INCLUDES project, which is aimed at enhancing U.S. leadership in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — discoveries and innovations through a commitment to diversity and inclusion. NSF INCLUDES — Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science — is designed to create paths to STEM for underrepresented populations, expanding the nation’s leadership and talent pools.

“The Navajo Nation Math Circles model is a novel approach to broadening the participation of indigenous peoples in mathematics that, ultimately, seeks to improve American Indian students’ attitudes toward mathematics, persistence with challenging problems and grades in math courses,” Auckly said. “This project brings teachers, students and mathematicians together to work collaboratively on challenging but meaningful and fun math problems.”

Math circles originated a century ago in Eastern Europe. Auckly co-founded the Navajo Nation Math Circle in 2011 with Tatiana Shubin from San Jose State University to provide mathematical activities and opportunities for K-12 Navajo students and their teachers in the American Southwest. The project sends visiting mathematicians to schools in the Southwest to present activities, operates teacher workshops on weekends, and offers spring festivals as well as a two-week summer camp designed for students grades 6-12.

“The project not only helps participants excel in their current grade `level, but also prepares them for higher education and math-related careers,” Auckly said.

Along with expanding the project to more Navajo Nation communities, the grant allows Auckly to establish a mirror site in Washington state, serving additional tribes, such as Puyallup, Muckleshoot, Tulalip and Stillaguamish. Elements of the program could include facilitation of open-ended group math explorations, incorporating indigenous knowledge systems; a mathematical visitor program sending mathematicians to schools to work with students and their teachers; inclusion of mathematics in public festivals to increase community mathematical awareness; a two-week summer math camp for students; and teacher development opportunities ranging from workshops to immersion experiences to a mentoring program pairing teachers with mathematicians.

Navajo Nation Math Circles was featured in the documentary “Navajo Math Circles,” which aired nationwide in September 2016 on the Public Broadcasting System. Some of the project activities will appear in a book in the American Mathematical Society-Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Math Circles Library soon.

Auckly’s project is one of 27 selected for funding through the NSF INCLUDES program. All of the programs will develop blueprints for collaborative change among institutions and organizations in order to address broadening participation challenges. A key feature of NSF INCLUDES is its focus on uniting a wide variety of collaborators to generate pioneering solutions to persistent problems. These pilot programs will create an infrastructure that enables collaboration, fueling future innovations in broadening STEM participation.