STS professor stresses social justice issues

Ron Eglash’s research brings STEM to minorities; creativity, culture part of mathematics

STUDENTS CONSTRUCT a solar reflector in Ghana as part of Professor Ron Eglash’s annual trip to Ghana.

This June, Renssealer Polytechnic Institute will be hosting a unique conference called “Generative Justice: Value from the Bottom-Up,” and this will be the first of its kind. Talking with Professor Ron Eglash from the department of science and technology studies at RPI gave insight into the focus of the conference and how his research ties into the idea of combining social justice and technology.

Originally majoring in systems engineering with a masters in cybernetics, Professor Eglash received his doctorate from the University of California at Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness program under Donna Haraway. Many of his research projects involve mathematics and their relevance to culture. After discovering the use of fractals in African culture and design, Eglash uses the African connection to reach out to low-income and minority students in middle and high school to raise their interest in the field of mathematics. Eglash has seen studies where minority students are discouraged and disinterested in the STEM fields due to not seeing their relevance to their lives.

Believing this to be social injustice, Eglash worked to come up with ways to peak their interest in math by showing the students the relevance of math in their culture. To do so, Eglash had to teach children both math and culture. His ideas and research led him to African cornrows, a popular hair style. He had students research cornrow braiding and what they meant in the original context—meaning, how the cornrows related to religion, kinship, status, age, and ethnicity. Then, using programming, Eglash had the students create their own cornrows and designs on the computer. The students learned skills such as numeric inputs, programming basics, geometry and Cartesian coordinates. According to Eglash, “Some of the kids see it to model anything that energizes their thinking and get their natural creativity to come out.” Furthermore, Eglash states, “Many times, mathematics is associated with the opposite of creativity; instead, I want to create a kind of mathematical creative medium.” After working with students, Eglash saw improvement in math scores and interest in STEM careers, a success according to him.

The success of Eglash’s work brought him to Triple Helix, a National Science Foundation program for grades kindergarten through 12 at Renssealer. Triple Helix, host of Generative Justice, takes on the task of doing things from the bottom up, taking resources already present in communities and bring innovation to areas in critical need. Highlights of the conference include compiling classroom lessons that will relay information or are interactive, raising HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in Ghana and an equation handler that helps users solve equations by using motion control. Generative Justice will be coming to RPI June 27-29.