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Making Math More Meaningful

July 22, 2014

Mathematics, says BMCC math professor Nkechi Madonna Agwu, is all around us—in our homes, classrooms and communities, and even in our apparel. A case in point: the colorfully patterned African head tie she is wearing.

Last semester, a student in Agwu’s Discrete Mathematics class created a highly complex cryptographic, much like military codes used in wartime. “When I looked at it, I saw how my traditional Ashoke head tie could well be imprinted with a coded message,” she says.

While the nexus of military codes, textile design, African culture and gender equality may not be evident to most people, it has long been a dominant them in the way Agwu teaches—and thinks about—mathematics.

As a recipient of a Carnegie Africa Diaspora Fellowship, Agwu will return to her native Nigeria for three weeks this August to work on a project titled, Culture and Women’s Stories: A Framework for Capacity Building in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Related Fields

New ways to teach math—and foster inclusion

“The goal is to develop curricular materials that are culturally based and gender sensitive and to train educators in Nigeria to use them to teach math and other STEM disciplines,” says Agwu, who will be based at the Center for Gender Issues in Science and Technology at Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA).

“The idea is to foster student innovation and creativity linked to the science and technology of their cultures,” she says.

At the same time, the curricula and related programs she seeks to develop will be aimed at encouraging girls to consider STEM-related careers, by providing mentoring as well as raising the profile of Nigerian women in the STEM disciplines. The fellowship is co-sponsored by the Institute of International Education and Quinnipiac College and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The mission Agwu has set for herself in Nigeria is shaped by values and ideals she traces back to her childhood.

When she was just five, civil war tore through her home country and she fled with her family to Sierra Leone. Her mother, a math teacher, kept her that her children in Sierra Leone so they could continue their education. Later, Agwu returned to Nigeria to pursue a degree in mathematics.

In 1985 she emigrated to the U.S., earning a Masters at the University of Connecticut. She then moved to Syracuse University, where she received a PhD in mathematics education, with a minor in gender studies and multicultural education. She has been at BMCC since 1995.

Six years ago, BMCC began requiring all students—math majors included—to take at least one writing intensive course in order to graduate.  “That gave me the impetus to teach Discrete Mathematics as a writing-intensive course,” Agwu says.

“Doing so would offer me a unique opportunity to bring forward some of my ideas around math and the many ways it connects with my students’ lives.  So I started to look at things I was familiar with from my specific cultural perspective, as a Nigerian, a Sierra Leonean and an American, and their relationship to the math concepts my students needed to understand.”

At the same time, her teaching approach reflected deep concerns about the barriers women face—especially in Africa—in entering the STEM fields. 

Making math relevant—and fun

To put her teaching philosophy into action, Agwu introduced games, cryptography, African doll-making, textile design, genealogy trees and graph theory. She had her students study the structures and floor plans of Nigerian palaces and the lives of female mathematicians and plot their own biographies as graphs.

For Nigerian-born Computer Science major John Aderounmu, Agwu’s approach to discrete mathematics was a revelation. 

“I realized that all the things I knew as a child back home could be related to mathematics, including things I never associated with math.”

He often played Mancala, a traditional African board game as challenging and complex as chess.  Agwu taught Mancala to her students, using game pieces fashioned from egg cartons and other discarded materials. 

“The study of Mancala involves math concepts like probability and sets,” says Aderounmu, “and it can help you improve your memory and critical thinking skills.”

But perhaps that’s only when the game is presented through the same uniquely creative lens that reveals hidden codes in traditional head-ties, and charts the trajectory of people’s lives on graphs.

In short, Agwu makes math relevant to her students’ lives in altogether new ways.  No less important, her students say, she makes math fun.

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  • Nkechi Madonna Agwu draws from cryptography, African crafts, and her own life in teaching Discrete Mathematics
  • Advocates for a greater role for women in the STEM disciplines in the Africa and the U.S.
  • Will travel to Nigeria as a recipient of a Carnegie African Diaspora fellowship

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