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Talk to highlight cultural view of math
1 February 2006
By Cheryl Long Feather, UTTC Research Director

      A professor of mathematics from the University of North Dakota will present a talk about the cultural context of math at United Tribes Technical College.

      Dr. Thomas Gilsdorf will present the talk, "Ethnomathematics: Seeking Mathematics in Cultural Contexts", Tuesday, March 14 at 10 a.m. in the Jack Barden Center lower level.

      Ethnomathematics is the study of mathematics from a cultural point of view.

      Most "Western", or Euro-American, descriptions of mathematics fail to account for the development of mathematical and scientific concepts from societies other than their own. Textbooks imply that mathematical concepts were 'discovered' and developed by Western thinkers. This view has been reinforced by the description that many tribal societies were "pre-numerate", suggesting they did not have systems for counting like those in use today.

      While counting is a powerful tool and has become a mainstream society norm, it's not the only measure of whether a culture understands or uses math. A single-minded emphasis on counting, in the way it has evolved today, fails to recognize that certain societies developed sophisticated reasoning about space, time and numbers. Disciplines in which complex mathematical concepts developed include architecture, agriculture, astronomy, ornamentation and textiles.

      Gilsdorf's presentation shows how mathematics appears in many cultural contexts, and often in activities that, at first, do not appear to be mathematical. He examines math in the context of divination, art and decoration, rituals, number words, and calendars. He will discuss the mathematics of cultural groups such as the Inca of South America, the Hidatsa, the Ojibway, and the Otomies of central Mexico.

      Although Gilsdorf will mention certain mathematical concepts, his presentation is suitable for a general audience and no specific mathematical background is necessary. On the contrary, anyone who has not thought of mathematics as a "Native" thing should attend and learn more about ethnomathematics!


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