News | June 20, 2016

Happy Accidents, Shared Connections and the Beauty of Math

A few years ago, Glenn Lilly, Director of the National Security Agency's (NSA) Mathematics Research Group, wound his way through a cavernous conference center searching for his designated location. Once he arrived, a soft voice asked, “Do you know about Navajo Math Circles?” He responded that he did not, and that simple question began a great relationship between two groups, NSA and the Navajo Math Circles project, each with a profound love of math.

On Monday, June 6, NSA hosted the owner of that soft voice, Dr. Tatiana Shubin, co-founder/co-director of the Navajo Nation Math Circles (NNMC) project. Dr. Shubin, a professor at San Jose State University, was accompanied by NNMC co-director Dr. Robert Klein of Ohio University, film producer/director George Csicsery, and six students/film subjects from NNMC math camps. The occasion was an event featuring a sneak peek of the film Navajo Math Circles, a documentary of the project. Prior to the film screening, NSA briefed the directors and students the agency's contributions to the Nation's security.

Math has a strong connection with Navajo culture, influencing everything from the beauty of textile patterns to how homes are constructed. The Navajo love of beauty and the students' view of the beauty of math are core themes of the film. In Navajo Nation Math Circles, Navajo traditions of visual and tactile learning are used to solve math problems.

NSA stands as one of the chief contributors to NNMC, established in 2012. Under the project, hundreds of Navajo students and teachers have found themselves at the center of a lively collaboration with mathematicians from around the world. Students stay late after school and assemble over the summer to study mathematics, using a model called math circles. NNMC has served 2,000 students and 250 teachers throughout its existence. Additionally, the program boasts 40 mathematicians including NSA employees, who volunteer regularly to work with participants.

Marcus, an NSA employee who visited a NNMC summer camp, joked, “I have a degree in mathematics and I didn't correctly solve some of the problems the students were given.”

As Dr. Shubin stated in the film, “Our hope is that all the kids on the reservation will believe and see that math is cool.”

During the panel discussion after the screening, the students addressed the link between mastering math and navigating life. “Math helps you learn to solve problems on your own, which helps with school,” said NNMC student Natanii.

Another student, Briana, noted, “Math is an everyday thing.”

“And math is the foundation of anything that you want to do,” echoed Charmayne.

For NSA, the reward for cultivating projects such as NNMC is simple. As Mel, a retired NSA employee and advocate for the project, stated, “We want math to be accessible to everyone.”

Through agency support of this project, NSA continues its mission to foster diversity, by building a community of NSA mathematicians and the Navajo Nation. Dr. Klein eloquently summarized, “As NSA well knows, Native Americans helped tremendously during World War II and the future security of this nation could rest with the Navajo Nation. So we leave them behind at our own peril.”