Faculty Profile: Ron Eglash

Ron Eglash

So, exactly how did Ron Eglash, UMSI professor of information, and one of six new faculty in fall 2018, become a pioneer in ethnocomputing and ethnomathematics?

This is how he tells it:

“In the 1980s, I noticed that in aerial photos, African villages looked like fractals. These ‘self-similar’ images had been used in the field of computational mathematics to model repeating shapes in nature: trees are branches of branches; clouds are puffs of puffs, and so on.

“These African villages were also using self-similarity. Rectangular houses were in rectangles of rectangles; circular houses in circles of circles. At the time, I thought it must be some kind of unconscious building behavior in which self-organization creates self-similarity, just as it does with coral reefs or termite mounds.”

Then Eglash spent a year traveling around Africa via a Fulbright scholarship. He interviewed African artisans at length and discovered, lo and behold, these patterns were not spontaneous or unconscious. Quite the opposite; they were revolutionary. 

Bottom line, he says, “What I was really seeing is an alternative form of math and computing, one that developed very differently from that of Europe – which is from the top down. The African model is from the bottom up.”

Brilliant, actually, Eglash says, since “the bottom-up approach is something that has revolutionized science and technology.”

There is much more to this engaging conversation, but you get the idea. 

Eglash grew up from age 3 in California, but it more than bears mentioning that, first, both of his parents were psychologists, and, second, his father worked with adults and youths in the Detroit criminal justice system. 

“This is where dad came up with the novel concept in the 1950s of ‘restorative justice’ as a replacement for our current system of retribution. At the time, no one paid much attention, but now, it’s a global force.” 

Like his son would decades later, the elder Eglash drew on Native American, African and other cultural traditions for rethinking justice. “Perhaps that was the seed for my own interest in culture, and in my case rethinking computing” Eglash says.

For Eglash the ethnocomputing concept is not just descriptive; both he and his wife, Professor Audrey Bennett, have put it to work in STEM education. “We have found that teaching kids to create designs with these ‘heritage algorithms’—fractals in African design, iterative patterns in native American weaving, Latino drum rhythms and so on—brings out a level of creativity and interest that you often don’t see in a regular math or computing class.” 

As a result, he says, “we have developed a suite of software tools that allow kids to create simulations, develop their own designs and then physically render them as textiles, structures, even ‘engineered ecosystems’ like aquaponics.”

Coming to UMSI is a fantastic fit, Eglash says. “I was really excited by the interactions I had with faculty and students at UMSI during my visit. There are some terrific areas where new collaborations will be possible,” such as, he says, economic revitalization in local cities; self-organization in online media; and international development.

Eglash does deviate from these absorbing studies to indulge in some favorite activities. One of them is playing the harmonica, which offers another interesting quasi-cultural tale.  

“In my youth, I was the token male in a lesbian blues band,” Eglash says. But, alas, “my musical activities are now limited to the basement.”

Both Eglash and Bennett are joining the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design faculty.