Pairing math with indigenous culture creates a path to success for young students.
“Mathematics is in our blood,” said Henry Fowler, an associate professor of mathematics at Navajo Technical University and a member of the Navajo Bitterwater and Zuni Edgewater clans. “Our Navajo women are the knowledge keepers, and they instill the love for mathematics into our children at an early age.”
Mathematics is a universal language that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers, and today’s Navajo students are learning it in a culturally specific way through math circles, thanks in part to the contributions of K-State math professor Dave Auckly.
In 2011, Tatiana Shubin, co-director and co-founder of the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles, approached Auckly to create a mathematics outreach program in an Indigenous community in the Southwest. They collaborated to establish community connections and plan outreach activities to attract volunteers and funds for the program. At that time, Henry Fowler served as the head of the mathematics department at Diné College and immediately expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
Together they launched the Navajo Nation Math Circles Program (NNMC) in 2012, with Shubin spending her sabbatical in the Navajo Nation. Auckly and Shubin continued their efforts to establish community connections, attract volunteers and secure funds for the program.
“Math circles are a 100-year-old model of mathematics that shares fun and engaging problems, encouraging people to have fun together while solving them,” Shubin explained.
The NNMC became the first adaptation of the math circle model to integrate Western mathematics with Indigenous cultural practices. The program’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of collective problem-solving, creativity and cultural relevance in education.
The program components build mathematical confidence for both students and teachers. These include special activities during school, after-school programs, math and engineering festivals, a two-week summer camp, teacher workshops, and a teacher mentoring program. Students and teachers develop a growth mindset through collaborative problem-solving and enjoy exploring mathematics together.
The program has also served as a model for other programs serving Indigenous and underrepresented populations, such as the Alliance of Indigenous Math Circles.
The supportive nature of math circles helps students realize that mathematics is a subject they can excel in, regardless of their background or prior experiences.
“It is an enrichment for your mind — to think differently than ordinarily,” shared Natanii Yazzie, a former student of the math circles program.
Math circles serve as a platform for mathematical exploration, fostering a tight-knit community that engages students in mathematical discussions and helps develop strong communication and interpersonal skills. Students learn to appreciate diverse perspectives, collaborate effectively and form lasting bonds with peers and mentors.
By nurturing students’ mathematical abilities and creating a supportive network, math circles inspire Navajo students to pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields. These circles help students gain the confidence and skills needed to overcome challenges they may face in college classes or STEM-related careers.
Charmayne Seaton attended the first summer math camp as a middle school student in 2013 and returned for several more. She is now pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Arizona State University.
“If you have a goal in mind and want it, you can do it,” Seaton said. “I can do it, and I believe that for everyone. You have to believe in yourself.”
The Navajo Math Circles program is not a one-person show, Auckly emphasized. It welcomes anyone who wishes to be part of the community and contribute to its mission. The program helps K-State faculty and students interact meaningfully with the community, and many individuals with ties to K-State have already supported this remarkable program.
Teachers who work with NNMC collaborate with mathematicians and other teachers. They learn to incorporate math skills into their classrooms in ways that motivate students.
“Students learn different problem-solving strategies, how to collaborate effectively, work through productive struggles — and find enjoyment in mathematical thinking!” said Anna Wold, a former K-State student and teacher in the Page Unified School District. “I’ve seen students benefit from math circles by increasing their ability to notice patterns and then use those patterns to solve problems during class, as they practiced during math circle sessions and can now apply to any math lesson.”
With sustainable funding, the program aims to run for another 30 years, benefiting Navajo students and the community.
Written by: Lilly Majors