ERIC Identifier: ED296819
Publication Date: 1988-03-00
Author: Marinez, Diana I. - Ortiz de Montellano, Bernardo R.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Las
Improving the Science and Mathematic Achievement of Mexican
American Students Through Culturally Relevant Science. ERIC Digest.
The underrepresentation of minorities in science, mathematics, and
engineering has been well documented. Suggested interventions frequently mention
better preparation in mathematics and science at the elementary and secondary
school levels and increasing the number of intervention programs. The success of
intervention programs is well established, but what needs examining are the
strategies a classroom teacher can use to help Mexican American students excel
in mathematics and science. This digest will explore the use of a culturally
relevant curriculum as one strategy.
WHY IS A CULTURALLY RELEVANT CURRICULUM NEEDED?
Culturally relevant science employs materials based on the culture and
history of the minority or ethnic group to illustrate scientific principles and
the methodology of science already in the school's science curriculum. Our
schools assume that Hispanic and American Indian cultures are either
anti-scientific or, at best, a-scientific. Concurrently, schools reflect a
common belief that the Western cultural heritage is particularly propitious to
scientific development. Most of the material available on the development of
science as well as the science curriculum taught in school reflects this
ethnocentric orientation. The scientific contributions of China, India, and the
Islamic nations are usually minimized, and traditional native cultures are
frequently depicted as permeated with superstition and magic rather than
oriented toward science. Both the failure of Mexican American and American
Indian children to take math and science and the small number of minority
scientists can then be blamed on deficiencies in their native cultures, thus
exculpating the schools and the larger society from any responsibility.
The factors usually examined thus do not include failure of the schools to
provide a culturally relevant curriculum. A small body of literature does,
however, focus on the importance of teaching culturally relevant science (or
ethnoscience) and provides specific examples of a culturally relevant
To encourage Mexican American and American Indian children to develop an
interest in science and to consider it as a career, a wider variety of examples
from different cultures should be used in teaching science. This practice will
send a message to the minority child that "my ancestors or people like me did
engage in scientific endeavors, and thus I can do it too." The child can take
pride in his or her culture's contribution to science and feel a greater degree
of individual interest in science.
IS CULTURALLY RELEVANT MATERIAL CONSIDERED SCIENCE?
We should not be trapped by an excessively restrictive definition of what
constitutes science, for the definition one chooses will determine what is and
what is not considered science. Malinowski (l954), for example, proposed
conceiving of science as "a body of rules and conceptions, based on experience
and derived from it by logical inference, embodied in material achievements and
in a fixed form of tradition and carried on by some sort of social organization"
(p. 54). He found that many principles of native knowledge were scientific by
this definition. Therefore, using culturally relevant material can enhance the
scope of science taught.
WHAT CULTURALLY RELEVANT RESOURCE MATERIALS ARE AVAILABLE TO TEACHERS?
The following are examples of culturally relevant materials developed from a
rich, but essentially untapped resource. These examples have been used
successfully in the classroom from the primary grades through college.
--Archeoastronomy. Archeoastronomy has provided new information about how
ancient civilizations perceived the heavens. Selected sites in the United States
(the mounds of the Midwest, the medicine wheels of the Plains States, and Fajada
Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico) and in Mesoamerica (Teotihuacan, the Caracol
at Chichen Itza, and Building J at Monte Alban) can be used for teaching
astronomy, observational skills, scientific methodology, and basic mathematics.
Astronomy is especially adaptable to primary school science.
--Maya mathematics and calendar. The most sophisticated examples of Mayan
thought are exemplified by their calendar and the mathematics which preceded it.
Many years of astronomical observation and meticulous recordkeeping were
necessary to achieve the accuracy which they attained. The structure of the
calendar was determined by both their cosmological beliefs and by the nature of
the mathematical system itself. Because of its complexity, the use of the
calendar in the lower grades is limited.
Teaching the Mayan mathematical system is especially appropriate for the
primary grades. Mayan mathematics were vigesimal, i.e., with powers of base 20
rather than base 10 as in the decimal system. They also employed place value
notation and were one of only two cultures to independently discover the use of
zero. The Mayan system uses only three symbols to represent numbers, a (.) for
one unit, a (-) for five units and a ( ) for zero.
Several articles have appeared on the use of the Mayan system for arithmetic
calculations. George Sanchez, the pioneer in this area, taught this system to
school children in Austin, Texas and claimed that, with a small amount of
instruction, they could perform arithmetic operations faster in Mayan than in
the decimal system, particularly if they used an abacus arrangement. Mayan
arithmetic can be used to get children to deal comfortably with numbers in
different systems, to have them play with numbers, and in general to demonstrate
that mathematics can be fun.
--Geology. Volcanic activity has always been a fact of life in Mesoamerica.
This interesting phenomenon may be used to teach basic concepts in geology while
studying culture and geography. The trade items of the Mesoamericans were of
volcanic origin and/or of plate margin activity (obsidian, basalt, serpentine,
and jade). The cenotes (sinkholes in limestone) can be used as a starting point
for the study of the geological phenomenon of underground rivers and the
composition of land in Yucatan. Geology is particularly well suited for
--Feeding the world: Productivity of food plants. Agriculture,
botany-ethnobotany, and nutrition come together to provide the basis for looking
at a world problem--hunger. There is no better way to get students interested
than starting out with a social issue.
The different uses for and sources of many plants can be discussed with
particular attention to the ways in which the Indian civilizations have
contributed to food resources. Many of the practices used today in agriculture
have their basis in Indian practices; in fact, we may be returning to a modified
version of them today. The Aztecs developed chinampas (built up platforms on
shallow lakes which were drought-proof and could produce several crops a year).
Many of their foods show promise for relieving protein shortages and assisting
in reducing the energy cost of agriculture. These new (for us) and unusual food
plants can be used as a starting point to discuss the productivity and
photosynthetic activity of food plants, their nutritional value, the food
production policies of different countries, and what is being done about world
--Herbal medicine/ethnobotany. The chemistry and uses of herbal medicines can
be used to teach students research strategies which involve literature searches,
written reports, personal videotape interviews of friends and relatives, and the
design of questionnaires to elicit appropriate information. At the higher grade
levels, laboratory research techniques can be taught, such as chromatography of
plant extracts showing students how chemical components of complicated mixtures
can be isolated. These valuable research methods will be needed by the students
in their future scientific studies or in their work in other disciplines. At the
same time, students will be learning about the development of cultural medicine
and its relevance to their own lives.
In teaching classification, ethnobotanical classifications should also be
presented. These classifications are logical, and their nomenclature is
descriptive of the plant rather than a reflection of the name of the discoverer,
as is too often the case in Linnean classification. One can point out that a
classification scheme is used because a group of people agree to use it as a
standard. The Linnean system is European folk biology elevated by agreement to a
science and perfected over the past 200 years. Students can be encouraged to
develop their own taxonomic system in order to teach them the logic of the
The one area that has received some attention in the school curriculum is
ethnic foods, but in many cases it has not been used to transmit nutritional
information. Information is available from the Cooperative Extension Service in
all land grant institutions, since it is used in their Expanded Food and
Nutrition Program in all states, or from the Extension Service, U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.
HOW CAN ART BE USED TO TEACH SCIENCE?
There are a number of ways to use art to teach science. Two areas have been
well developed. The "Chemistry of Color" is still in the developmental stages.
--Science and creativity in the Diego Rivera murals in Detroit. In the
Detroit murals, Rivera placed a special emphasis on the positive and negative
aspects of science and technology. He depicts the applied sciences of surgery,
pharmacy, agriculture, chemistry, and weaponry. His representation of
theoretical science extends back to the ancient Greek concepts of Earth, Fire,
Air, and Water and proceeds through the 19th century debate in geology over the
role of fire and water to the 20th century discussion of the origin of life and
the mechanism for the synthesis of life. These murals, and Rivera's art in
general, can be used in the teaching of geology, biology, chemistry/
biochemistry, medicine, and technology, either as a starting point for
discussion or for enrichment and integrative purposes in discussing the
similarities and differences between the creative processes in science and in
art. A slide set of the murals is available for purchase at the Detroit
Institute of Art. Rivera murals can also be found in other parts of the United
States, and field trips can be arranged in these areas.
--Botany and Mesoamerican designs. Designs on small clay spindle whorls and
stamps found in some archeological excavations in Mesoamerica reveal a variety
of floral and fruit structures. Spindle whorls (malacates) are 2-5 cm diameter
clay discs from the bottom of the spindle used for spinning maguey, cotton or
wool fibers. The stamps are 1-23 cm long incised clay artifacts, wich were
probably used to print designs on another surface. The designs closely resemble
sections of fruit (pepper, squash and tomato) and radially symmetrical botanical
diagrams of flowers. Class activities in biology can begin with an art project
or end with an art project. These designs can be used to learn flower structure,
to learn floral diagrams, to observe various fruits in sections, to compare
Mesoamerican designs with European floral diagrams, to discuss whether or not
the representations from each culture are of the same objects, and to learn
which of the examples of the fruits were domesticated in the "new world."
--The chemistry of color. Dyes from native plants can be extracted for
beginner's chemistry to study color and color production. The plants can be
grown or collected and classified into groups using different criteria. The dyes
extracted can then be used in an art project.
There are many ways in which science can be made culturally relevant.
Archeoastronomy, mathematics, geology, ethnobotany, chemistry, and art all can
be taught from a perspective which celebrates the accomplishments of Mexican
American and American Indian science and encourages exploration. Stimulated by
such an approach, students who have typically not been attracted into scientific
careers will perceive new possibilities.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Coe, M. D. "The Chinampas of Mexico." SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, July 1964: 90-98.
Clymer, J., and E. Rodriguez. "Ethnopharmacognosy of Amazonian Psychoactive
Plants." In ASPECTS OF AMERICAN HISPANIC AND INDIAN INVOLVEMENT IN BIOMEDICAL
RESEARCH, pp. 169-177. Bethesda, MD: SACNAS, 1985.
Hime, C. "Ethnoscience: An Educational Concept." In V. L. Melnick and F. D.
Hamilton (Eds.), MINORITIES IN SCIENCE, THE CHALLENGE FOR CHANGE IN BIOMEDICINE,
pp. 259-266. New York: Plenum, 1977.
Krupp, E. C., (Ed.). IN SEARCH OF ANCIENT ASTRONOMIES. New York: McGraw Hill,
McMeekin, D. "Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Botany." Unpublished manuscript,
Michigan State University.
Malinowski, B. MAGIC, SCIENCE AND RELIGION. New York: Doubleday, l954.
Ortiz de Montellano, B. R. "Empirical Aztec Medicine." SCIENCE 188 (1975):
Sanchez, G. I. ARITHMETIC IN MAYA. Austin: Privately printed, 1963.
Sequin-Frey, M. "The Chemistry of Plant and Animal Dyes." JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL
EDUCATION 58 (1981): 301-305.
Weyl, R. THE GEOLOGY OF CENTRAL AMERICA. 2nd ed. Translated into English.
Berlin: GEBR Borntraeger, 1980.
Wolfe, B. D. PORTRAIT OF AMERICA BY DIEGO RIVERA. New York: Covici Friede,