Context, Culture & STEM Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This study is designed to ascertain ways in which American Indian students and their teachers in selected communities make use of local wisdom and heritage ethnomathematics and ethnoscience practices in STEM education. The richly specialized mathematics and science knowledge woven into the lifeways of Native students often goes unrecognized as “mathematical” or “scientific” by teachers because these understandings have not been defined as such in their experience as educators. Students may miss out on critical opportunities to build bridges between their own life experience and classroom mathematics and science when teachers are unprepared to identify, explore, and expand the connections between the two traditions of knowledge.


K-8 indigenous classrooms in Arizona, Alaska and New Mexico.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is comparative, and is designed to generate descriptive evidence through observation. This project collects original data using personal observation, videography, and survey research including face-to-face semi-structured/informal interviews and focus groups. The team established relationships with teachers via informal conversations and/or formal interviews to determine which observation methods were least intrusive and to plan a schedule around lessons that tap the particular content/approaches we wish to observe. We developed our own observation and interview protocols based on these findings. Observation notes and descriptions were shared with teachers and community liaisons for purposes of accuracy. We also were careful to include culturally appropriate methods, such as group interviews with elders that incorporate storytelling, for example. Most interviews were conducted in English, however the community liaisons identified interpreters when heritage language was needed. Originally-collected data will be made available for use by others through a book.

Hyperresearch was used to deconstruct informal, classroom interactions, interview data, observations and focus group findings for math/science and cultural knowledge. We probed the ways that teachers (from within and from outside the communities where they teach) make the mathematics/science curriculum more meaningful and accessible to students; teacher concepts that guide these processes; the principles they employ; how they go about making their own knowledge explicit; and how they expand these intuitions, draw from community knowledge, and determine student understanding of culture-based math/science.

  • Teachers and instructional assistants are seeing a change in school culture dynamics.
  • They are being sought out for information, are feeling more valued, and have a more central role in curricular decisions.
  • They acknowledge it as an important factor, especially in communities where there is a high staff transition rate.
  • Usually, Native teachers and instructional assistants are constants in the community. Including them in decision making processes and providing them more professional development opportunities can only enhance the continuity and quality of education for students in their respective communities.
  • The actions of teachers, students, staff and administrators in observed schools are rooted in ethical standards that permeate curriculum, instruction and school culture.
  • High student attendance rates and high involvement of parents and other community members in the academic lives of their children attest to the success with outreach and inclusion of community values and member participation in the education of their children
  • Teachers reveal the importance of having a purposeful goal and meaningful process in teaching and learning.
  • Some made reference to seeing a difference in students’ attitudes when activities were task-oriented and related more closely to student’s lives.
  • Science was identified as a natural connector between learning and a closer link to traditional practices.
  • Giving students an opportunity to connect to something familiar as a springboard to extend learning into new areas was identified as key among all the teachers.
  • Teachers identified the positive impact that it has on students to bring Elders into the classroom. This has particularly been helpful for non-native teachers, as the community members are able to address and share experiences and knowledge the teachers could not offer otherwise.
  • There are several other factors that come into play with regards to Elders’ involvement in the classroom, which varied from school to school; among them, availability and access (transportation) to the school site.
  • Some of the obstacles reported by all teachers dealt mainly with issues of time constraints, given the external mandates and pressures from accountability, limiting opportunities to engage in longer explorations and project-based learning.
  • Native teachers also identified lack of resources and reduced intrinsic resources, such as students loosing their native language, and with it a wealth of knowledge and values inherent in the culture, and further ramifications in the social structure of the communities.
  • Despite these challenges, teachers sought ways to engage students and to provide opportunities to teach content and to reinforce students’ cultural backgrounds (e.g. highlighting community events and students’ participation in them, being role models from within the culture, or having a ‘cultural focus week’ with community. Findings have implications for Teacher Training Programs across the entire spectrum of Professional Development
    • Teachers need collaborative opportunities, resources and time to develop and reflect on practice, especially in remote areas.
    • Teachers for the most part saw students as capable learners, with very few exceptions where deficit model statements were recorded.
    • Both Native and non-native teachers emphasized the importance of being able to provide as much support and opportunities for the students to be successful in meeting the expectations of both the modern academic world and their cultural heritage (unity involvement).
Publications & Presentations: 

Moschkovich, J. & Nelson-Barber, S. (In press). What math teachers need to know about culture and language. In B. Greer, S. Mukhopadhyay, S. Nelson-Barber, & A. Powell (Eds.). Culturally Responsive Mathematics Education. Mahwah, NJ: Taylor and Francis Group.

Native power, pedagogy and place: Strengthening mathematics education through indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing. Annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Salt Lake City, UT, April, 2008.

Learning, culture and context: STEM education in rural indigenous schools. Annual meeting of the National Indian Education Association, Honolulu, HI, October, 2007.

Language & Culture in the Teaching of Science. Workshop presented at the annual Pacific Education Conference, Honolulu, Hawaii, July, 2007.

Transformative approaches to mathematics and science education. Expert Panel on Pacific Education. Pacific Education Conference, Koror, Palau, July, 2006.

What teachers need to know and do in multicultural classrooms: A case for culture-based curriculum. Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, April, 2005.

Connecting the teaching of mathematics to community culture: A Native American Case Example. Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Quebec, April, 2005.

Other Products: 

A text recounting the process and a program of professional development for in-service, as well as teacher preparation.