Here’s a math problem for you: What do you get when you add one math nut to a classroom?
The answer is simple: You get a love of math multiplied and divided by the number of children he teaches.
Actually, there’s more to the equation.
You don’t have to chat long with Stavros Stavrou to calculate that he is crazy about math and the unique opportunity he has to share this passion.
“I do love teaching mathematics. Math is a subject that has a negative connotation – you either like it or you hate it. Or you think you’re either good at it or you’re not good at it. So, I like that I can mold the students who are undecided about their position on math,” says Stavrou.
The guy with the super cool name is the Math Outreach Coordinator with the Department of Math and Statistics. This department teamed up with the University of Regina and the Pacific Institute of Mathematical Science (PIMS) to start a new program aimed at enriching the mathematics education of First Nations, Inuit and Metis students.
The program was created to help attract Aboriginal students to the Math and Sciences, because Aboriginal students are seriously underrepresented in these fields.
As part of the program, Stavrou travels to communities and schools to teach math to First Nations and Metis young people, from elementary to high school. So far, he has visited a number of Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan and participated in summer camps held by schools in Muskeg Lake, Mistawasis, Yellow Quill, and Kinistin. Most recently, he’s been co-teaching math with Norma Bear, a Grade 6 teacher at St. Frances School – a school in Saskatoon with a high population of Aboriginal students.
The program is unique though in that it doesn’t just offer camps and additional resources to teachers and students. It uses a cultural-based approach to teaching math.
“I think the biggest thing is we want to make cultural connections with mathematics, although a lot of people think it’s a subject that is not culturally dependent, it actually is. And math in North America is very westernized,” says Stavrou.
Academics often refer to it as ethnomathematics. This concept, when applied to math education, recognizes that virtually every classroom is characterized by diversity. Educators challenge themselves to incorporate the cultural diversity of a student’s mathematical practices into the curriculum.
The U of S program is in its first year of operation, and it would seem it’s the first real concerted effort in Saskatchewan to explore how to incorporate First Nations, Metis and Inuit culture in math curriculum.
According to Stavrou, the pilot program is accomplishing its aim.
“In terms of the Grade 6 classroom, they are a lot more motivated. They are a lot more engaged. Their reading and writing in mathematics has improved. And there’s a student in the class who, he would be someone the school system would describe as ‘high needs.’ What’s interesting is that I wrote down the Cree symbols for the numbers and he recognized that right away. So he helped me write and spell all the Cree numbers and I was really impressed. It was fascinating how he could spell all of the Cree numbers; he even knew where to put the accent sign. He wouldn’t hesitate to say ‘No, you’re saying it wrong.’ So there was a moment when he was teaching me.”
When a story ran on the program in the Star Phoenix in November last year (2013), Stavrou received a lot of interest from teachers and principals from schools around the province.
But with seed feeding of $50,000, the program can’t expand to very many schools at this point, and Stavrou himself has other commitments. He is doing his Master’s in Math Education and in his spare time tutors Commerce students, including those in the Aboriginal Business Administration Certificate Program. He’s also helping out with U of S Science camps. The math program does a lot of collaborative work with the PotashCorp Kamskenow program run by Lana Elias through the College of Arts & Science.
Given the practical limitations of its direct reach, the program’s funding also is being used to develop materials and activities that interested teachers in Saskatchewan can use by themselves to make math accessible to all their students. This involves collaboration with teachers and community people to find places where culture and math can merge.
“I don’t want to claim that I or the math department has all the answers, it’s a matter of other ways mathematics can be taught. We’re interested in connecting with people and other cultures and learning from them,” says Stavrou.
Stavrou hopes that the program expands and continues to engage more and more students in learning math, while perhaps instilling a love that will lead them to pursue math-related studies and employment.
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