Exploring Math Through Hawaiian Navigation

Oct 22, 2018

Halau Ku Mana freshman Kahu Blevins-Kalima uses his hand to measure angles along the quadrant while Math & Science Teacher Darienne Dey looks on. Such hand configurations are used by modern day Hawaiian navigators to estimate things like distance, time and altitude of the stars while at sea.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Math class isn’t what it used to be. For ninth graders at Hālau Kū Mana Public Charter School, it means escaping the classroom and losing the calculator. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

Once a week, math class for ninth graders at Hālau Kū Mana Public Charter School is held along the shores of Kahaluʻu Bay, miles from their Makiki campus. There are no desks or dry-eraser boards. Today’s lesson is a combination of geometry, trigonometry and navigation.

“So today they actually were able to calibrate themselves as the measurement tool without necessarily using calculators or protractors,” says Math & Science Teacher Darienne Dey, “They basically took the space around them and intuitively divided it in ways that they’ve learned in hula, when they work in the loʻi (taro patch).”

Darienne Deyuses ethnomathematics in her teaching, which is simply applied math through a cultural lens. 

DEY: All right...who wants to help with the next measurement? 

She’s teaching a system of hand configurations developed by Hawaiian navigators to estimate things like distance, altitude, and time while at sea. Students use the large grassy lawn as their geometric plane – slicing up the quadrant with rope and cement blocks.

DEY: We want to know what our five degrees is, our 10 degrees is and our 20 degrees.

Dey then has her students calibrate their own hand measurements for each angle or degree span. 

Standingat the quadrant’s originating point, shoulders squared to the cement marker, Kahu Blevins-Kalimaʻs outstretched hand is in the shape of an “L”,  a configuration navigators call kīkoʻo

“Fifteen degrees is my kīkoʻo. - from the tip of your pointer finger to the tip of your thumb,” says Blevins-Kalima. 

This measurement, Dey tells her students, is the equivalent of an hour and can help them measure how many hours of remaining sunlight in a day – making math not only relevant to their daily lives but to the history and culture of this place.

“This is definitely something that they’re going to need increasingly as we progress throughout our curriculum,” says Dey, “Because it’s not just about curriculum but when we actually go on the wa’a (canoe).”

Dey was an early participantin the University of Hawaiʻi’s Ethnomathematics & STEM Institute, spearheaded by Hau’ula native Linda Furuto. Furuto has been training Hawai’i math teachers like Dey for more than a decade.

“What’s different is this year, we become institutionalized at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in the College of Education,” says Furuto, “And to me that means support from the top down and it means that we are looking at the world as a classroom.”

For the ninth graders at Hālau Kū Mana, that real world math lesson will be an end-of-the-year sail to put those hand configurations to the test.