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Math Lesson Makeover

Cornrow Demo
Students in math classes across the country can thank a Rensselaer researcher for giving their homework an overhaul. Ron Eglash, associate professor of science and technology studies, has used the mathematics embedded in the designs of various aspects of native and contemporary culture to develop a series of interactive, Web-based teaching tools.

Eglash has created a suite of 11 computer software programs that focus on individual facets of African American, Native American, or Latin American culture where math plays a role in design. Called “culturally situated design tools” (CSDTs), the programs educate students about the mathematics principles used to design cornrow hairstyles, Mangbetu art, Navajo rugs, Yupik parka patterns, pre-Columbian pyramids, and Latin music, among others.

“Making real-world connections — especially connections that tie in students’ heritage cultures — in math instruction has been recognized as increasingly important by educators. Culturally situated design tools provide a flexible space to do that, allowing students to reconfigure their relationship between culture, mathematics, and technology,” Eglash says. “By challenging students to recreate a set of goal images or to construct their own shapes and designs, the tools give them a hands-on opportunity to explore and manipulate standard curriculum math concepts such as transformational geometry, scaling, Cartesian coordinates, and fractions, while connecting those concepts to their heritage as well as contemporary culture.”

New research reported in the June 2006 issue of American Anthropologist suggests that use of CSDTs can raise math achievement and may improve technological career aspirations for ethnic minority students.

Preliminary surveys of students — 83 percent of which were underrepresented minorities — who used the design tools for two hours per day over a two-week period displayed a statistically significant increase in their attitudes toward computers, compared to 175 randomly selected students who had not used a CSDT.

Two qualitative evaluations conducted by teachers of predominately Latin American students found a statistically significant improvement in the mathematics performance scores of students using the CSDTs, compared to the achievement of students in classes where the tools were not used as a teaching aid.

All of Ron Eglash’s culturally situated design tools can be found and used, free of charge, on his Web site at

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