Winner of the AAA 2001
Integrating Anthropology
into Schools $2500 Seed Grant

Dr. Ron Eglash, Asst Prof
Rensselaer Poly Inst
110 8th St
Troy, NY 12180-3590

SimShoBan: Computer simulation of indigenous knowledge at the Shoshone-Bannock School

I. Introduction
The characterization of inadequate information technology resources in disadvantaged communities as a "digital divide" was a useful wake-up call. At the same time however, this metaphor is often taken to imply a problematic solution: the "one-way bridge." We have all the technology, they have nothing. This one-way bridge perpetuates stereotypes, and overlooks the valuable resources that disadvantaged groups can offer. This project is based on a "two-way" bridge approach in which we illuminate both technology and culture on each side of the divide. By deploying an anthropological framework, our collaborative design for simulation of Shoshone-Bannock traditional knowledge systems will enable a more symmetric epistemological basis, empowering local education while offering new approaches for participatory software design in high-tech frontiers. Our work in progress can be viewed at

II. Anthropological framework
We refer to this new anthropological framework as "participant simulation." This is a synthesis between the older methodology of "participant observation" and new simulation techniques. Current simulation techniques are often inadequate, since the relations between the subjects of the modeling and the modelers themselves remains essentially unchanged from the techniques first used in the linear, top-down models of the 1950s. By creating a synthesis between the participatory approach of traditional ethnography and the technological power of computational resources, participant simulation offers new possibilities for the application of anthropology to contemporary problems in both educational and software design domains.

III. The local setting
Our case study for participant simulation is "SimShoBan," an educational simulation created in collaboration with teachers and students at the Shoshone-Bannock reservation. The Shoshone and Bannock tribes originally inhabited a wide area extending from the Cache valley in northern Utah into Idaho. Restricted by both US colonization and environmental degradation due to cattle ranching, they are now located on a reservation in nearby Ft. Hall, Idaho, and have purchased some of the surrounding ranch land for return to its natural state. Shoshone science teacher Ed Galindo has pioneered innovative techniques for restoration of the local ecosystems, particularly re-introduction of salmon. Working with various community members--Mr. Galindo and other local teachers, students, and tribal culture representatives--we are creating a computer simulation that can model natural and social features of traditional Shoshone/Bannock life. Most importantly, it provides the opportunity to translate the indigenous knowledge systems -- which included botany, zoology, astronomy, and number and geometric patterns - into the framework of contemporary math and science education.

IV. Educational framework
This synthesis between software tools and secondary school coursework will integrate ethnomathematics, ethnobotany, nonwestern medicine, and other anthropologically derived materials with standards-based curriculum taught in grades 5-12. These materials, which will reflect the cultural heritage of Shoshone students, include geometric designs in craft work, adornment, architecture, and the arts; numeric relations found in counting, measuring, monetary systems, navigation, astronomy; and a wide variety of other artifacts and procedures. The use of such anthropological materials in the classroom has several advantages. First, researchers have found that many minority students can improve their engagement with mathematics when it is better connected to their social background (Hanks 1998, Rasch 1994). Second, since many minority students report that they avoid math and science achievement because it is seen as "acting white" (Powell 1990), ethnomathematics offers a chance for youth to view math as a bridge to their heritage, rather than an barrier to this identity. Third, by using information technology to illuminate the sophisticated basis for indigenous knowledge-to translate indigenous knowledge into the "western" framework -- we can help combat the damaging myth of genetic determinism and offensive primitivist cultural portraits that saturate contemporary media.

Interactive educational technologies offer unique support for incorporating our proposed materials into teachers' curricula. We distinguish between deep interactivity, where students are provided with tools for exploring a solution space, and the facile "poke-and-see" multimedia often sold. Much of our focus is on "design tools," which allow students to explore geometric and numeric relations by both quantitative and "physical" manipulation (e.g. the dynamic spatial effects made possible by dragging with a mouse). "Guided discovery" (cf. Yerushalmy 1990) is a term often used to describe these active learning methods. This deep interactivity has demonstrated the capability for interdisciplinary mathematics instruction (Keitel and Ruthven 1993), and Stiff et al. (1993) specifically pointed to computer-based learning as a promising forum for bringing these changes to minority students. Means (1997) reviews 10 case studies in which interactive computer media were found to enhance at-risk student engagement with classroom curricula. Our development process seeks to ensure that teachers can make optimum use of these new tools without sacrificing rigor or adherence to standards.

V. Current Work
We began in the spring of 2000 when a local university professor invited us to participate in research on Shoshone ethnomathematics. After an enthusiastic meeting with science and mathematics teachers at the tribal secondary school, we suggested that we expand the work to include other indigenous knowledge systems besides mathematics, and place the research in a computer simulation environment. Science teacher Ed Galindo was particularly enthusiastic about the project and offered to provide local leadership.

Back at RPI, we assembled a team of four undergraduates-two computer science majors and two electronic arts students-as well as a faculty member in ecology. We created a storyboard for how the simulation might be run, and a software prototype for the ethnomathematics material, the "Virtual Bead Loom" (VBL). In November 2000 we took the storyboard and software to the tribal school. The VBL (see was a clear success. The VBL screen begins by showing the prevalence of four-fold symmetry in Native American design, where the "four directions" concept, an indigenous analogue to the Cartesian coordinate system, structures astronomical observations, calendars, numeric systems, and other knowledge domains (cf. Closs 1986, Witherspoon and Peterson 1995). We then move to the Shoshone beadloom, showing the underlying Cartesian structure of its grid, and finally to the virtual loom. Here students can enter numeric coordinates for bead position; along with color choice this enables pattern capabilities similar to the indigenous loom. Students and teachers immediately understood the implications for showing the algebraic and geometric content in traditional bead patterns, all based on the deep cultural theme of the "four directions."

The simulation storyboard, in contrast to the VBL, was a near disaster. The RPI students had based their simulation concepts on familiar games, in particular "Dark Ages," in which players became medieval characters attempting to develop and defend their local village. The Shoshone-Bannock school students and teachers pointed out that a simulation in which everyone stayed rooted to one spot was replicating the reservation system-certainly not a representation of traditional life-and implied that the graphic characters might be too close to the offensive cartoon Indians portrayed in sports mascots. They suggested that a more accurate simulation would show how populations shifted to different areas with the seasons, and that a simulation player should learn about the technologies and activities associated with each. Many creative suggestions were then opened up for new kinds of graphical interface, some of which our programming team is still striving to understand. In addition to gaining new insight into how to provide more appropriate software for the Shoshone-Bannock students, this experience has also helped us illuminate the ways in which software subculture affects the supposedly "cultureless" world of computer programming (eg influence such as the "Dark Ages" game).

We scrapped the storyboard (retaining a copy for future anthropology articles!) and started over again, this time focusing on simulations for four food-gathering technologies, each associated with one season. Students will be able to explore the underlying geometry of these four structures by manipulating numeric parameters (see Three-dimensional simulations for woven structures has turned out to be a challenging task-we brought in a mathematics faculty member to meet the challenge-and they have in turn illuminated new research directions in ethnomathematics, showing how analogs to the polar coordinate system were used in conjunction with the Cartesian grid. We have also found some striking parallels between features of simulated triangular bead patterns on the VBL and the details of traditional beading, suggesting indigenous versions of iterative algorithms and geometric "rules of thumb." Shoshone-Bannock students and teachers have started experimenting with some of these modules, and we look forward to face-to-face discussions in our next field experience.

Hankes, Judith E. Native American Pedagogy and Cognitive-Based Mathematics Instruction. New York: Garland Pub 1998.

Powell, L. "Factors associated with the underrepresentation of African Americans in mathematics and science." Journal of Negro Education, Vol 59, no 3 1990.

Keitel, C. and Ruthven, K. (eds) Learning from Computers: mathematics education and technology. Berlin: Springer-Verlag 1993.

Stiff LV, Johnson JL, and Johnson MR. "Cognitive issues in mathematics education." in PS Wilson (ed) Research ideas for the classroom: high school mathematics. NY: MacMillian 1993.

Means, Barbara. "Critical Issue: Using Technology to Enhance Engaged Learning for At-Risk Students." Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Education Laboratory, 1997.

Witherspoon, Gary and Peterson, Glen. Dynamic Symmetry and Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo and Western Art and Cosmology. Bern and New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995.

Yerushalmy, M. "Using empirical information in geometry: students' and designers' expectations." Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, vol 9(3) Spring 1990.

For more information please contact:
Dr. Ron Eglash
Assistant Professor
Dept of Science and Technology Studies, Sage Labs
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 110 8th St
Troy, NY 12180-3590
Work phone: 518-276-2048
fax: 518-276-2659

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