Skip to Main Content

For UMass Lowell Professor, Math and Culture are Intertwined

Professor Iman Chahine at North-West University in South Africa
University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Iman Chahine at North-West University in South Africa, where she is based during her Fulbright Scholar Award research project.

01/24/2020
Boston Globe
By John Laidler

Beadwork, baskets, and origami are not normally considered tools of the trade for math teachers. But for University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Iman Chahine, they can be as important as calculators, rulers, and protractors.

As an ethnomathematician, Chahine studies the way basic math concepts are embedded in every culture and how exposing students to those different paths to knowledge can enrich their understanding of math and other societies.

“Humans from prehistoric ages have been accumulating knowledge which they share and transmit from one generation to another,” said Chahine, an associate professor of education at UMass. Examples in the realm of math, she said, include employing probability to weigh strategies in indigenous games and algebra and logic to describe kinship relations.

She said her goal is to help integrate that insight into classroom teaching around the world, “to engage students in transcultural, problem-based inquiries where they can experience the realities of knowing and doing mathematics” in different cultural contexts.

Chahine has a special opportunity to advance that mission overseas as a result of receiving a recent Fulbright US Scholar Award.

For the next nine months, she will be training teachers in some of South Africa’s high-needs districts on how to incorporate traditional arts and culture into their high school math curriculum, including indigenous games, baskets, and beadwork from Zulu culture and geometric designs in the murals that Ndebele women paint on their walls.

Chahine, who arrived in South Africa on Dec. 31, is based at North West University’s Potchefstroom campus, where she has been appointed honorary research fellow.

Her selection to receive the Fulbright was a thrill, said Chahine, who was interviewed by e-mail from South Africa. “It was quite reaffirming and humbling.”

“This opportunity is a realization of a life-time commitment to humanize, internationalize, and extend the field of mathematics education beyond geographic boundaries and institutional settings,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to replicate and extend the research model we are implementing in South Africa to other countries as well to ensure global impact.”

A native of Lebanon, Chahine joined the UMass faculty in 2018.

Eleanor Abrams, dean of UMass Lowell’s College of Education, said the university is thrilled to have Chahine on its faculty and to be able to learn from the insights she brings to teaching math.

“What’s special about Iman is how she links mathematics education to students’ everyday cultural activity,” she said. Noting that math can often seem abstract and unconnected to the natural world, Abrams said placing it in a cultural context makes it more relevant to students, and hence easier to master, while also broadening their understanding of other cultures.

Abrams said UMass students aspiring to become teachers have much to gain from being exposed to ethnomathematics since the Merrimack Valley is so culturally diverse.

Prior to UMass, Chahine was an associate professor of mathematics education and an affiliate faculty member at the Middle Eastern Institute at Georgia State University, and taught math for 15 years in her native Lebanon.

Since 2010, Chahine has been collaborating with colleagues in South Africa, including as a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg, and as director of three Georgia State study abroad programs. In the latter role, she oversaw an initiative in which student teachers studied how different cultures interpret math in South Africa and Morocco.

Her current project builds on a previous one between 2015 and 2018 in South Africa, where she and colleagues at North West University integrated indigenous knowledge systems into math and sciences teaching, especially at the high school level.

Working in the Northern Cape region and KwaZulu-Natal province, the research team will examine the experiences of high school teachers introduced to ethnomath.

“The ultimate goal,” Chahine said, “is to offer South African teachers opportunities to engage in exploring mathematical ideas as they emerge in South African contexts and in ways that are different from what they currently use in their classrooms.”

Chahine said her interest in math began when as a small child she would watch her mother use it in her sewing work.

“She used to transform rectangular sheets of fabric into outfits precisely designed to fit particular sizes,” she recalled.

Her inspiration to explore ethnomathematics came in the mid-1990s when as a master’s degree student at the American University of Beirut, she undertook a research study on children working as street vendors to help support their families in the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war.

“I was interested in examining the mathematics that these young street vendors used . . . in the cause of survival. I found that children developed their own computational strategies that are significantly different from those taught in the school setting,” Chahine said.

Chahine then used a university grant to research the spatial reasoning skills of master plumbers in Beirut and compare them to those used by students. The studies inspired her to further explore ethnomathematics, which led to her earning a PhD in the field from the University of Minnesota in 2008.

Chahine said at its core, ethnomathematics represents not simply an alternative way of teaching but an effort to promote social justice.

“The impetus of ethnomathematics research is to acknowledge the mathematical contributions of many cultures and to recover their dignity,” she said.