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ATE informal learning club draws from ancient roots

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Each week, small groups of children gather after school at two local elementary schools and a leadership center. The goal is to learn about math; but this is not just any ordinary math group.


Each student is given a Nepohualtzitzin (neh-poe-wault-zeet-zeen) – an abacus-like tool used for calculations thousands of years ago by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Mayan and Nahua societies. The students must then move the corn counters on the Nepohualtzitzin to represent a number, sometimes in the millions or billions, or perform a basic mathematical function, such as adding or subtracting.


Although it appears to be simple, the Nepohualtzitzin is actually complex, as are the calculations that can be done using the tool.


“If you break up the word Nepohualtzitzin, it translates to ‘ne,’ or the person, ‘pohual,’ or to count, and ‘tzitzin,’ or to transcend,” said María Elena Rodríguez, Academy for Teacher Excellence (ATE) education specialist. “The whole point of the Nepohualtzitzin is for the person to recognize the importance and symbolism of numbers and counting. Numbers are all around our universe and our lives. Therefore, the person who comes to recognize the importance of numbers and their symbolism transcends.”


The Nepohualtzitzin Ethnomathematics Project is the newest of ATE’s informal learning clubs and began at the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Rodríguez, Karina Lares, ATE education specialist, and several UTSA students work with children to teach them how to count and perform calculations using the Nepohualtzitzin.


“We start off with the basics where the children are learning the structure of the Nepohualtzitzin, the place value system, and how to count,” said Rodríguez. “Then we move on to addition and subtraction. You can do multiplication, division, square root, and even algebra on the Nepohualtzitzin. It looks simple, but what it does and how it calculates is very advanced.”


The clubs are currently offered at Henry B. Gonzalez Elementary School and the Edgewood Family Center in the Edgewood Independent School District, Medio Creek Elementary School and Somerset Elementary School in the Somerset Independent School District, and the West Side Girl Scout Leadership Center. The goal of the club is to prepare the children to become academically ready for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.


“We just want them to be very excited about math,” said Rodríguez. “We want the children to know that they are capable of anything in any of the STEM areas.”


But the club, she said, is more than just mathematics. The children also learn about dance, music, and games that relate to both the mathematics concepts they have learned as well as Mesoamerican culture. 


“The students are learning Ethnomathematics,” said Lares. “So we’re not only teaching the children mathematics, but also teaching them about culture and how to live in communal harmony. We want the students to learn that it’s not just about yourself, but about sharing the knowledge with others in the community.”


The Nepohualtzitzin Ethnomathematics Project was inspired by the work of Everardo Lara González, author of "The Nepohualtzitzin Within Nahuatl Figurative Mathematic Model." In 2006, several members of ATE, including Rodríguez, studied under González and brought back their knowledge of the Neophualtzitzin to ATE. These trainees, Rodríguez said, have since developed the training needed to work with the children in this new informal learning club.


“We wanted to share with others the knowledge and understanding about this mathematical way of thinking,” said Rodríguez. “We wanted to do it in an informal learning club because in these clubs, more of this information can be shared with children in a fun, exciting way. So far, everyone loves it.”


In addition to their plans to add an additional site this summer at the Martinez Street Women's Center in the San Antonio Independent School District, ATE is also working to expand the parent training portion of the club.


Other informal learning clubs through ATE include the Robotics Clubs and La Clase Mágica Clubs. For more information on these clubs, visit the ATE website.



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