Traditional story telling helps more Indigenous youth ‘catch on’ to math
By Justin Wong
SFU health sciences student Reinelda Sankey grew up near Prince Rupert in a small B.C. indigenous community called Lax Kw’alaams and like many of her peers, dropped out of Mathematics 11. She felt frustrated with trying to learn the difficult course concepts.
Many indigenous youths in B.C. share similar experiences with mathematics in the Canadian secondary school system—just two per cent of B.C.’s indigenous student population completes Principles of Mathematics 12, a compulsory entrance prerequisite for many post-secondary programs in B.C.
In an effort to change that statistic, SFU’s science and mathematics departments together with the university’s IRMACS Centre, created the Math Catcher outreach project. It’s goal: to help indigenous students improve their success in school mathematics programs.
In 2012, Sankey met SFU math professor Veselin Jungic, creator of the Math Catchers program, through SFU’s university preparation program for indigenous students. Jungic helped Sankey successfully earn her prerequisite math credits to get into SFU by showing her that there are many different perspectives to understanding math concepts—a core focus of the Math Catchers program.
The initiative incorporates elements of indigenous storytelling, traditions and culture into mathematics lessons, and promotes earlier teaching of basic skills and problem-solving.
Since establishing the project in 2011, Jungic has created nine animated videos that introduce math concepts in an indigenous context to young students.
After experiencing its potential firsthand, Sankey volunteered as a tutor in the program to help motivate young indigenous students to persevere through the same challenges she experienced, by sharing her story. For the last six years, she has traveled to indigenous communities throughout B.C. including her home community of Lax Kw’alaams, a small town of just over 800 residents, where she helped many students she knew while growing up in the area.
“When I first meet a lot of our students they tell me math isn’t their favourite subject because of the challenges they go through trying to learn the difficult concepts,” says Sankey. “But I love seeing the light bulb moment when our students realize they can do it because that’s when they start to get really excited about math.”
Sankey is now a graduate with a BSc in health sciences. She earned straight A’s in her final semester and has been named to the Dean’s honour list multiple times during her time at SFU. She hopes to one day attend medical school and become a physician.