The Math Catcher Outreach Program: Motivation and Aims

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September 12, 2016

By: Ozren and Veselin Jungić

While relations between Indigenous institutions and the Canadian government have improved in recent generations, many Indigenous peoples have missed out on the opportunities and high living standards that other Canadians enjoy. A major reason behind this injustice is the persistent legacy of the residential school system and other methods of oppression that continue to discourage young Indigenous peoples from studying mathematics in secondary school and from continuing on to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at university. If Indigenous Canadian communities aim to effectively manage their resources and secure the wealth and prosperity that modern Canada offers, more young Indigenous peoples must study these value-generating subjects and pursue the rewarding careers that they can lead to.

At present, few[1] Indigenous students complete Math 12, a subject required to study STEM subjects at the university level, and even fewer Indigenous students go on to study STEM subjects at university. Compared to the non-Indigenous population, the difference is dramatic, and much can be attributed to decades and even centuries of systematic attempts to destroy Indigenous communities. Even prosperous Indigenous communities are often forced to hire external specialists for specific community projects because of a lack of homegrown expertise. There is no doubt that Indigenous communities would benefit from locals with STEM skills who are also familiar with their communities’ traditions and needs. In addition to safeguarding their community’s dignity, Indigenous experts would also be able to anticipate and address local problems more effectively and efficiently than external consultants with no long-term stake in a community’s well-being.

The question is: what can educators do to help repair the damage caused by years of neglect and harm in order to promote mathematics and other STEM subjects among Indigenous youth so that they can launch careers that will advance the prospects of their communities?

The authors are convinced that breaking down the stigma surrounding mathematics among primary and secondary school students will encourage them to complete Math 12, which will in turn make studying a STEM subject at university possible. Overcoming the widespread and persistent misconception that mathematics is too difficult or otherwise unattractive remains a major obstacle to promoting an educational environment conducive to meaningful skill-based change on the ground.

The Math Catcher program is a science outreach initiative at Simon Fraser University run by SFU faculty and staff members and students who volunteer their time towards the program. The Math Catcher program aims to tackle the stigma surrounding mathematics among Indigenous youth through a series of initiatives. These include school visits, workshops, academic summer camps, tutoring programs, and creation of learning resources in various First Nation languages. The aims of the program are straightforward: to demonstrate that mathematics is part of everyday life and consistent with Indigenous culture; to prove that mathematics can be interesting and even fun; and to emphasize that mathematics can lead to a rewarding future.

A significant challenge for math educators teaching children and young people is to convince them that mathematics is a relevant and not a solely abstract subject. Many youth, when encountering abstract thinking for the first time, struggle to connect mathematical concepts to everyday life. One of the aims of the Math Catcher program, therefore, is to link mathematics to the “real world” through problem solving, stories, and hands on activities. The authors have no doubt that by forging a connection between mathematical concepts and the world students live in, the subject can become less intimidating and even attractive.

Since the Math Catcher program also aims to promote Indigenous culture, many of the strategies and activities that the program employs are connected to Indigenous culture, facets of which students are already familiar with. Indeed, promoting endangered Indigenous languages is a major aim of one of the program’s main initiatives.

 

[1] For more details see, for example, Archibald, T., Jungic, V., Mathematics and First Nations in Western Canada: From cultural destruction to a re-awakening of traditional reflections on quantity and form, In B. Larvor (Ed.), Mathematical Cultures, The London Meetings 2012-2014, (pp 305-328). Springer, 2016