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Briggs: Busted back to high school math

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Ronald Reagan was president when I graduated from college.

Don’t you dare calculate how long ago that was!

It’s just an example of the kind of equation I am grappling now that I’m midway through my master’s degree, I find myself busted back to high school math.

I’ve avoided mathematics since before I could legally drive a car. My collegiate liberal arts education gave me a broad-based love of literature and letters, language and culture, politics and journalism. But it also let me squeak by the ordering systems of mathematics with very little, very light science classes.

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In my twice-weekly math lab at the Tulalip campus of Northwest Indian College, many of my colleagues are returning to school to get them ready for careers in the new economy. For most in this lab, algebra, geometry and the like are requirements to move on with a different field of study.

In some ways we may be working through the stages of grief: denial, anger. … acceptance. I hear it when a treaty-fisherman wonders out loud why he needs to know algebra when he can calculate cash per pound of salmon in his head. I don’t disagree, even though I keep my eyes focused on my textbook.

In some ways the image of a math whiz has changed since I was in high school. If not old-fashioned geeks anymore, then lately some are Wall Street derivatives traders, whose speculative practices helped unhinge the U.S. economy. But in an interview in New York Times Magazine, President Obama named the mathematically minded college student as a key to rebuilding America through engineering, scientific advancement and computer development.

If mathematics is important to the manufacturing economy the president would like to return the nation to, then it would seem it is important to traditional or natural resources economies.

This started me thinking about the makers of tipis. I called some, being careful not to mention the math in my voicemail messages, figuring that would scare them off.

Taking the formula for a cone, it would seem that someone could find out how much canvas is needed to make a tipi cover. Or total area = (PI)r1 + (PI)r2, right?

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Only one tipi maker talked to me. He is Ryan Roemmich, owner of Western Canvas Supply and Repair in Cody, Wyoming. But when I ask about the geometric formula, he didn’t know.

“It’s been figured out about 20 years ago,” Roemmich said. “We have it in our patterns for nine- to 30-foot tipis. If I started this business myself there would be a heck of a lot of math to do.”

Still, he said being quick with calculation is important to ordering, billing and even sewing the patterns correctly.

I’m not surprised. Every teacher I ever had said as much. But did I listen? Was there a louder message in society back when I was in school?

Twenty years ago, girls took fewer advanced math classes than boys, and therefore didn’t perform math as well, according to research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Maybe math, which is found prehistorically in every human culture, is as achievable a skill as any other.

The gender divide in mathematics has gone the way of the hoop skirt. The study released last summer found that girls now perform as well as boys in standardized math tests. The reason is simple; girls are now equally enrolled in advanced math classes.

But attitudes about girls’ propensity for high math persist. How many of us have been influenced by bad advice from a guidance counselor, or even a Barbie doll that only 16 years ago said, “Math is hard!” when you pulled her string. Maybe math, which is found prehistorically in every human culture, is as achievable a skill as any other.

It holds the keys to mysteries like time and space. Should I be surprised if in language people can find great moral truths and that in the working of numbers others can find clarity in the human condition?

I am reminded of Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee mathematician who was one of an elite group of engineers at the Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., who helped NASA win the space race. Ross’ seminal writings about the potential for travel to Venus and Mars are still studied today, 40 years after she wrote them.

Later she told an interviewer, “To function efficiently, you need math. The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”

Kara Briggs is Yakama and Snohomish. She is a columnist with Indian Country Today. She is also editor of the American Indian News Service from the National Museum of the American Indian. Reach her at