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Math Catcher helps Indigenous high school students by using storytelling, traditions and culture

Reinelda Sankey, a student who is part of the Indigenous outreach program at Simon Fraser University, is photographed between her travels to the lower mainland and northern BC in Richmond, British Columbia, Sunday, June 24, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Reinelda Sankey, who grew up in the small northern B.C. community of Lax Kw’alaams, struggled in math. She barely passed the Grade 11 course on a second try and did not pursue the subject in Grade 12. It was a difficult decision: Math is a compulsory entrance prerequisite for several university programs.

“It was really frustrating and I felt doubtful of my abilities as a student and what I thought I was capable of,” Ms. Sankey said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next.”

Her struggles in math are shared widely, but especially among Indigenous students. One 2012 report showed that only two per cent of B.C.’s aboriginal population completed Grade 12 mathematics, compared to 25 per cent of the province’s whole population – a statistic that is not dissimilar in other parts of the country.

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A new program is looking to change that – and it proved to be a success for Ms. Sankey.

Earlier this month, she graduated from Simon Fraser University (SFU) with a bachelor of science degree in health sciences. She earned straights As in her final semester and hopes to attend medical school.

“I realized I was capable of being good at math. It changed my perspective as a student and as a learner,” she said.

The outreach program that helped Ms. Sankey succeed is called Math Catcher, the brainchild of SFU math professor Veselin Jungic. It infuses Indigenous storytelling, traditions and culture into mathematics lessons.

Mr. Jungic said he was inspired after a workshop with Indigenous leaders in Banff and established the program in 2011. Since then, he and his team have created a range of learning resources to help Indigenous students succeed in math – for example, they’ve produced animated films with mathematical themes that teach elementary students pattern recognition and counting. They visit schools and run workshops in communities across B.C. and Alberta.

Mr. Jungic said there’s a mathematical presence in various Indigenous traditions, from weaving patterns in baskets to strategies of the salmon harvest. Even in a carved mask, students can learn about symmetry – a way that connects culture and mathematical concepts.

“It is not a question of a lack of talent or a lack of interest for mathematics and science among aboriginal students. It is rather how do we reach out to those people who come from those rural, small communities ... how do we reach out to those people to really explore and develop their talent?” he asked.

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“My experience with Indigenous storytellers taught me that if I want to communicate mathematics to a non-mathematician, it’s better if I tell a story,” Mr. Jungic added. “It works like magic. You see students getting engaged and enjoying themselves.”

Mr. Jungic understands that change takes time. Figures from B.C.’s Ministry of Education showed that only about 10 per cent of Indigenous Grade 12 students enrolled in a precalculus math course, compared with 42 per cent of non-Indigenous students. Students who take this course are generally bound for postsecondary studies in math, science and engineering.

The Indigenous population at SFU is small. Those who self-identify as Indigenous make up 3 per cent of students in health sciences and only 1 per cent of engineering and mathematics students.

Mr. Jungic hopes that his program will engage more students and push them toward furthering their math education.

He described Ms. Sankey as one of his best students. SFU initially declined her admission into its undergraduate science program because she did not have a Grade 12 math credit. She enrolled in a university preparation program at SFU for Indigenous students. That’s where she worked with Mr. Jungic, who taught her different ways to understanding math concepts – the focus of the Math Catcher program.

She passed her math course with top marks.

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“It was just having somebody in my corner, somebody who told me I was capable of doing it and somebody that was willing to take the time and sit with me through problems and help me figure it out myself,” said Ms. Sankey, 23.

She has taken her new way of learning math into other communities, including her own near Prince Rupert.

Ms. Sankey ran math workshops earlier this year in her community of Lax Kw’alaams with students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and shared her own experiences with learning the subject.

“Every one of us at one point or another has struggled with math, has struggled with school, has struggled with thinking, ‘are we capable of doing this?’” she said. “I was trying to help others in the community to see that they can do it, too.”

Mr. Jungic said he was touched watching his former student become a role model. “A moment like that gave me hope that what we were doing was going to make a difference,” he said.

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