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October 24, 2002 Architects argue for urban flair in new School of Business



Jim Barta, Native Access to Engineering Program (NAEP) visiting scholar

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

Jim Barta tries to make numbers dance for First Nations children. He works on ways to make mathematics relevant — even colourful — for young native students, who have traditionally struggled with the field.

Barta, a soft-spoken visiting scholar with Concordia’s Native Access to Engineering Program (NAEP), is passionate about ways to engage young native students in mathematics — a science drenched in a Western paradigm going back to the ancient Greeks.

He has been developing curricular activities that can help native children learn basic math concepts in ways that incorporate their own cultural background. Using beadwork patterns, for instance, he makes addition, fractions and percentages come alive.

“We are trying to modify instructional approaches to incorporate more of a focus on native culture, beliefs and values, and perceptional paradigms,” said Barta, an associate professor in elementary education at Utah State University who is spending a year at Concordia.

“When we say mathematics, we need to be clear that really the type of mathematics we’re describing in our schools today is, for want of a better label, Western mathematics,” he said.
Hence, native children face a double challenge when they encounter math. “They’re having to learn the language of the Western world, and then they’re having to learn the language of the math and science that’s framed into that Western perspective.”

Barta hopes the culturally tailored approach will entice more native children to become interested in the sciences. Traditionally, the dropout rate among native students has been high. Barta described one native community in Utah where only two or three out of every 10 finish high school and, at best, one going on to university.

His aim of engaging native children in early science education complements the mission of Concordia’s NAEP, which is to get native high-school students interested in pursuing science studies, such as engineering. He and NAEP founder Corinne Jetté agreed that you can’t begin the process early enough.

“If we wait until high school to start encouraging our native students to go to university and help them realize that math and science education is really important, the pool is too small,” Barta said.

“My particular work is looking at young children, starting as soon as they get into school and helping them realize that they do have mathematical potential, that they’re capable of thinking about things and that they’re needed.”

One way to help native children with math is “to make the numbers dance,” Barta said, paraphrasing a concept he picked up at a conference at Concordia. This approach seeks to make use of the fact that in native cultures, world views tend to be more animated and spiritual — as opposed to the more abstract perspective of the Western paradigm.

Barta has developed a program for Ute children in his home state of Utah, called Honoring Ute Ways. It employs native-American concepts to teach mathematics, while still fulfilling state curricular requirements. A colourful example of a learning tool is a strip of native beadwork.
“It’s great, because there is probably no elementary math concept, from kindergarten through sixth grade, that cannot be demonstrated using beadwork as a model,” Barta said, listing simple counting, fractions, percentages, and ratios as examples.

At the same time, a teacher can address the spiritual value of the beadwork, talking, for instance about its symmetry. “There’s a beauty to it,” Barta said. “It’s how these people express balance.

“If that’s where you begin with these young children, they start to say, ‘Wow, I can understand these mathematics, because really it’s describing who I am.’”

As part of his sabbatical year at Concordia, Barta has been visiting the Kahnawake Indian reserve just south of Montreal and has interviewed teachers there about math instruction. Eventually, he hopes to demonstrate that “what worked for the Ute can work for the Mohawk.”