Basket motifs illustrate mathematical concepts

Jenifer Pham, Laura Gutierrez Funderburk and Howell Tan | Photo by Dale Northey, Creative Studio

In May 2018, the Tla’amin Nation hosted Veselin Jungic and Cedric Chauve, two mathematics professors at Simon Fraser University (SFU), to discuss a project that would combine Indigenous art and mathematics.

Less than a year later, through the efforts of three SFU students, an educational tool was created to teach math to Grades 5 through 12 students using Tla’amin basket designs.

The art of teaching mathematics

I have been collaborating with Dr. Veselin Jungic for many years on Math Catcher,” says Betty Wilson, a Tla’amin elder.

Established in 2011, the Math Catcher Outreach program is run by SFU staff and student volunteers with the goal of promoting mathematics and science to Indigenous youth. Meanwhile, Chauve had just established the SFU branch of Callysto, a two-year joint project funded by Cybera and the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences.

The project began when Jungic saw one of Wilson’s cedar root baskets. Tla’amin baskets are made of cedar bark or cedar root that have been carefully harvested so that the tree is left unharmed.

“[He] sent me an email telling me he found the polynomials in my basket exciting,” recalls Wilson. “I was surprised. I do math?”

The project takes shape

Working under the supervision of Chauve, undergraduate students Laura Gutierrez Funderburk, Jenifer Pham and Howell Tan became collaborators in the project. From a mathematical and educational perspective, what is the appeal of the basket motifs?

“The Tla’amin baskets were appealing to teach mathematical concepts due to the discrete pro-
perties of the patterns,” says Tan.

He explains that intricately woven patterns could be broken down into ‘atomic’ pieces which, in turn, are the building blocks for other complex patterns. Their application allows a user to take a simple shape (e.g. a triangle) and create beautiful patterns through a series of mathematical operations.

In the process of learning how complex structures are composed of simple substructures, students are taught mathematical and computational modes of thinking. In particular, the application teaches elementary school level geometry, symmetry and transformations.

“It introduces two-dimensional geometric figures and transformations such as reflection, translation and stacking in an intuitive and friendly manner,” says Gutierrez Funderburk. “It also introduces implicitly the basics of algorithmic thinking.”

While the target audience are students Grade 5 and up, Pham notes that younger children could also benefit from the tool.

“[Children] these days as young as age three know how to use technology like iPads and computers,” she says. “I would encourage them to experience the application.”

The many angles of mathematics

One goal of the application is to encourage youth to explore mathematics from a different angle. This is especially important for those students who do not instinctively enjoy math.
Applications that make mathematics fun encourage students to persevere in their struggle to understand the topic. At times, passing the initial hurdle can lead to great rewards.

While mathematics was always Pham’s favourite subject, Tan and Gutierrez Funderburk learned to appreciate math through hard work and a desire to challenge themselves. During high school, Tan preferred arts and visual design over math. In university, however, he decided to work on a subject that he found difficult.

“I took it as a personal challenge to learn something that I was not inherently good at,” says Tan. “So, I decided to major in math.”

Struggling with math in high school, Gutierrez Funderburk took additional tutoring during evenings. It was then that she explored math with more care and came to appreciate the subject.

“My hope is to use applied mathematics and computational science to tackle problems in human health,” she says. “I also want to encourage students who find mathematics daunting or alienating to give mathematics a try.”

The sum of it all

Wilson actively works to preserve Tla’amin culture. When asked how this project fits in with her preservation efforts, she replies with a question.

“What better way can we show reconciliation?” she asks. “Look at the collaboration that now exists between our community and the SFU math department, the acknowledgement that our people use math in our daily lives, the recognition that our cultural values continue and is being respected by this hardworking group.”

For details of the Callysto Salish Basket project, visit