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Talk to highlight cultural view of math
22 August 2007

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

      Dr. Thomas Gilsdorf will present the talk, "Ethnomathematics: Math in a Cultural Context," Wednesday, August 29 at 3 p.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 math and scientific concepts from societies other than their own," said Cheryl Long Feather, UTTC Research Director.

      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," said Long Feather. "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 math 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.

      Gilsdorf holds a B.A., M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics and has studied the ethnomathematics for many years. Although he 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," said Long Feather.

 

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