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Math and Science Across Cultures, from the Exploratorium

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Emilio De Torre

This is an exciting way to introduce math and science concepts to your teens. Every activity is distinctly non-Western, i.e. Brazilian, Chinese, Madagascan, Mayan, Egyptian, etc., but after exploring the concept from a new perspective, the activity allows students to examine its relevance and correspondence to Western mathematics or science. The book is well organized, with lots of help for instructors, but a few days prereading and preparation time will be needed as some, if not all, of the concepts will be new. Materials will be inexpensive. Even if you don't plan to use this as the backbone of an afterschool program, the book could be an important resource for activities.
Full Review:
Math and Sciences Across Cultures is exactly what the title describes. Internationally flavored activities that seem developmentally appropriate for middle school through high school. Afterschool centers do not need to follow the activities in this 176-page book sequentially. Although the authors deem these activities appropriate for fourth grade and up, some of the concepts may prove rather complicated and therefore better suited for high-school-aged youth. If you are looking for an exciting way to introduce math and science concepts to teenagers or academically advanced young people in a multicultural, hands-on fashion, look no further.

In the curriculum designers' own words, "This book was created to help increase awareness of multicultural issues while making science and math more relevant and approachable to people of all backgrounds...[and] open a science-rich environment to all students."

Math and Science Across Cultures is divided into six functional sections that afterschool educators may find useful: 1. How to use the book and activities; 2. Patterns and play; 3. Counting and calendars; 4. Social and cultural traditions; 5. Subsistence and survival; and 6. How the four academic sections relate to National Standards.

What does all of this mean? There are 14 activities to explore with your youth, and they are divided into 4 main groups. Every activity is amply illustrated, contains some background information explaining the culture, people, and the cultural or practical significance of the object or activity to those foreign peoples. Every activity is distinctly non-Western, i.e. Brazilian, Chinese, Madagascan, Mayan, Egyptian, etc, but after exploring the lesson, its relevance to Western mathematics or science is examined. The activities are aligned with National Standards for both math and science.

Usefully, each lesson has a reference box entitled What's It All About? This box briefly explains what you'll be exploring, as well answering the following questions:
  • Is there anything special I should know?
  • How much time will I need?
  • What materials will I need?
Overall, materials cost is very, very low. There are always ways to supplement or expand upon the activities, but to implement them in your facility will be inexpensive. Time-wise, it's a different story. As always, it's best to have training focused on the specific curriculum you hope to implement. Good intentions and a little homework aren't going to prepare anyone to adequately implement a science/math curriculum that focuses so heavily on "exotic" cultures. Although it's fun and exciting because it is more than likely quite different from the average afterschool topic, there are bound to be many questions and/or opportunities to misconstrue or miscomprehend the complexities of these other cultures. Unfortunately, the cultures referenced here may be interpreted as just another oddity or something to be referenced as an unusual way of living somewhere else, unless there are ways set up to inspire additional research or understanding.

The activities themselves range from half an hour up to 4 hours. In reality, some of the activities are so complex, with so many teachable tidbits, that they can be spread out over a number of sessions or expanded to many days of discovery and not limited to the preordained amount of time. Because the lessons are so culturally diverse, they can also be included in activities that focus on the geographic or ethnic areas as well and thereby depart from a strict math or science approach. To prepare, with careful reading, it will take staff from half an hour to two hours just to read through and become familiar with the concepts and exercises.

Let me make it perfectly clear to any potential users of Math and Science Across Cultures that the mathematical and science content is exciting and culturally diverse. However, many of the activities are quite complex and the instructor will need to spend an evening or two examining and practicing how to best teach and explain the concepts. Although there are instructional What's It All About? boxes that briefly explain what the instructors will need, what they will really need is to spend from several hours to a few days reviewing the book and familiarizing themselves with the concepts and activities within. They are for the most part as unfamiliar as the cultures they represent, and although we may be familiar with the Western parallel of the math or science theme, discussing and exploring its foreign counterpart and then relating it to the Western concept, let alone teaching the Western math/science concept itself, are altogether different things.

The way the set of materials is organized and developed lets teens "coinvestigate" the topics. This alleviates the whole "there is only one right answer and one way to do this" atmosphere. These chapters are based on "experimentation and exploration," after all. It will also let the instructor be a coexplorer of these topics and remove some of the burden of having to be an omniscient font of information and answers. As a stand-alone math or science curriculum, it has a great deal of potential; the instructors may wish to expand the program to include more study of the cultural aspect or not. Math and Science Across Cultures is open-ended enough to be this flexible. Indeed, instructors can choose to do just one or two exercises from the book to supplement their existing programs and ignore the rest. Used as a cultural math/science activities reference book, it could serve many ends. If your facility has some nimble-minded teens, and your staff can "pre-read" and practice the activities ahead of time, then prepare to have an exciting and fun time experimenting and exploring the world's cultures through a math and science perspective.