Math never tasted so good. In winter 2020, University of Hawaiʻi–West Oʻahu students learned the Pythagorean theorem using multicolored Starburst candy squares to visually represent a² + b² = c² and got a sweet reward for their efforts.

It’s one of the myriad of ways in which Associate Professor Kamuela Yong makes math relevant.

“Math is all around us,” Yong said. “Applied math really helps to explain how things work everyday—everything from business decisions to even architect decisions.”

Kamuela Yong
Kamuela Yong

Yong has earned a number of distinctions since he joined the university in 2015, including being named a 2020 Board of Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Teaching recipient. This, after achieving international recognition in 2012, as the first Native Hawaiian to earn a PhD in applied mathematics.

He said math can help Hawaiians sustain themselves through food and agriculture. “Things that we do culturally, you can do math models towards what happens in the loʻi, and you can do things towards harvesting of fish.”

Math can even help to explain a pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, Yong presented the mathematics of a pandemic to the campus online, explaining everything from how to calculate infection rates to how to calculate effective vaccination rates. By that time, he had already created more than 200 online math videos representing more than 48 hours of instructional content.

The next generation

Yong has inspired students such as Victoria Penalver, now an applied mathematics major. Penalver said, “[Math is] not just some big abstract waste of time, but it’s actually able to show us and explain to us some of the things that we see happening in real time and even to predict things that could happen.”

Christa Gogue and Justin Delos Reyes
Christa Gogue and Justin Delos Reyes

Student Justin Delos Reyes said applied math helped with a winter break project involving a fishpond on Kauaʻi. Math helped him to calculate when a certain amount of tilapia would die out, when there would be high tides and the implications for the fishpond. “It’s pretty amazing to know that applied math does that,” he said.

Christa Gogue, who is from Guam, said Yong connected her with a Chamorro colleague to discuss what it means to be a Chamorro mathematician. “Applied math has helped me to think more critically when approaching problems. It might not only be done in one way, but in several different ways,” Gogue said.

“Success for me first of all is I want students to not be afraid of math,” Yong said. Based on this formula, his thriving students are achieving exponential growth.

—By Kelli Trifonovitch