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In a search for a different way to teach and learn math, a group of University of Hawaiʻi students and college and high school educators traveled to the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology on Moku o Loʻe, also known as Coconut Island, in Kāneʻohe Bay.

The field trip was part of a free, two-week long, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program out of University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu, funded by federal, state and Native Hawaiian grants. The program started in 2009 and is called the Ethnomathematics Summer Institute.

“Ethnomathematics is basically, I like to see it as practical math,” said UH West Oʻahu student Scott Yago. “It’s math applied in our culture around us.”

“Like to relate math outside of the classroom,” said fellow UH West Oʻahu student Andreanna Banta. “Like your culture, whether it is your own Hawaiian backyard, or anything you love, music.”

Katie Carpenter, a 4th grade teacher at Kamiloiki Elementary agreed. “It’s basically finding mathematics in our natural environment, in our natural surroundings.”

Like Kāneʻohe Bay. The group found snapping shrimp and other creatures in the algae they collected after they arrived on Moku o Loʻe. They listened for the snapping sound of the shrimp in a Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology laboratory and tested to see if the snapping got louder and more frequent when a predator, like a crab, was introduced. This led to a discussion on the mathematical aspects of sound waves.

“Amplitude, period, wavelength, frequency, and why should we care about these?” said Linda Furuto, a UH West Oʻahu associate professor of mathematics and the Ethnomathematics Summer Institute director. “Why should we care about these mathematical concepts? Because it impacts our coral reefs and our backyards.”

These types of connections are stressed in each class and every field trip.

“Analytical geometry and the fishponds and Mokauea Island Fishing Village to hiking down from the highest sea cliffs in the world to Kalaupapa and seeing linear functions and symmetries and intercepts and axes,” explained Furuto.

When students, of any age, experience these connections firsthand, it can open up a world that many spend their lives avoiding, the world of math and science.

“Um, actually, I used to hate math,” said Yago.

“I didn’t even care for math,” said Banta. “I thought it was so boring.”

But after taking enthnomath courses at UH West Oʻahu and participating in the summer institute, the students say math is no longer just books and paper.

“It was actually a way of life and it is a way for you to conjure your thoughts up and explain human interaction and explain natural things happening in the world so it really opened up my eyes,” said Yago.

“As a student, it makes me want to come to class,” said Banta with laugh. “And as a career, I want to go into education so I hope that I can be able to inspire my students just as I have been inspired to take learning outside of the classroom.”

For teachers, the summer institute allows them to experience different STEM teaching strategies firsthand, and the importance of teaching through real-life scenarios.

“They find it more enjoyable,” said Carpenter. “They are more engaged. They want to do more math instead of just recess.”

There is no cost to participate due to support from the National Science Foundation, Hawaiʻi Pacific Islands Campus Compact Ecosystem, U.S. Department of Education Title III Part A Native Hawaiian Serving Institution, and University of Hawaiʻi SEED Diversity and Equity Initiative.

The summer institute also partners with Native Hawaiian and other community- and research-based organizations to develop projects that focus on strategies that support current and future STEM students.

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