“Heritage algorithms” help STEM students connect with indigenous cultures

Potawatomi Nation high school student working with Dr. Eglash's simulation tools at the Center for Native American Studies, NMU

Ron Eglash, professor in the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) and the Stamps School of Art & Design, is the recipient of a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation for his work with culturally situated design tools (CSDTs).

The grant funds a program to teach students how to simulate designs that show the sophisticated math and computing ideas at the center of cultural traditions.

“We developed CSDTs because underrepresented students in STEM are often viewed in terms of deficits, or an absence of knowledge,” says Eglash. “Through CSDTs we can show them, with online simulations, the amazing diversity of heritage algorithms that were created in different cultures.”

Many cultural designs show how math and computing ideas are embedded in indigenous traditions, graffiti art, and other surprising sources. These “heritage algorithms” can help students learn STEM principles as they simulate the original artifacts, and develop their own creations.

In the CSTD program, students make their own creative interpretation of these algorithmic traditions on a computer screen, and then use digital fabrication technology, including laser cutting and 3D printing, to bring their designs into physical reality. 

Eglash says that educators have to move beyond approaching culture as just “sugar coating” to make STEM more tempting. 

“It’s really a way decolonize STEM; to ask how the fruits of innovation and discovery can be democratized. For example, we also connect students with adult entrepreneurs in these heritage traditions, to show how they can contribute to grassroots economic development and communitarian forms of progress.”

Eglash, a pioneer in ethnocomputing and ethnomathematics, joined the faculty at UMSI in 2018. This grant is a transfer from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

- Jessica Webster, UMSI PR Specialist

Posted June 13, 2019