As an eighth-grader in what was then the U.S.S.R., Department of Mathematics Professor Tatiana Shubin won a “math Olympics” to gain entrance to a specialized physics and mathematics boarding school in Siberia. She speaks of mathematics almost reverentially: “It’s not just a collection of boring and uninteresting algorithms; it’s a beautiful application of the human mind, allowing us to appreciate the beauty of intellectual constructs.”
For Shubin, mathematics is not just a profession—it’s a vocation. The Soviet-born, UC Santa Barbara graduate first introduced math circles (a means of teaching mathematics that began in Eastern Europe) to local Silicon Valley high school students in 1985, the same year she joined SJSU’s faculty. After falling in love with the Navajo culture during a cross-country trip with her husband in 2002, Shubin began to wonder if the math circles approach might also increase interest in mathematics among Navajo students and ultimately attract more Native Americans to STEM fields. Unlike the Silicon Valley project, there would be educational hurdles: geographic isolation, the community’s economic hardships and a lack of resources, such as reliable Internet. It would also take Shubin several years to persuade the Navajo Nation of the project’s benefits, but she persevered, determined to offer Navajo students the opportunity to “lose their fear of mathematics and start considering themselves as critical thinkers.”
In 2012, along with colleagues from Diné College and Kansas State University, Shubin launched the Navajo National Math Circle Project (NNMCP), based in Tsaile, Arizona. The NNMCP is built around three primary components: after school programs at schools on the reservation, teacher development programs and a two-week summer program—all designed to encourage a sense of discovery and excitement about mathematics through problem solving and interactive exploration. Pairing research mathematicians with students is a core concept of the math circles approach.
Four years later, NNMCP is “definitely making a difference in students’ lives,” Shubin reports. “We are changing attitudes. The students are more concentrated, more focused and can spend more time dealing with a problem.”
Navajo Math Circles, a documentary by George Csicsery, captures both the challenges of the project and how NNCMP is helping parents, students and teachers envision a brighter future. A 2016 official selection of the One Nation Film Festival, the Arizona International Film Festival and the Vision Maker Film Festival, the documentary aired on PBS in September.