‘Sungka,’ jeepney drivers, ‘sari-sari’ stores and why Pinoys are ‘math-tinik’

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By Alexander Villafania

MANILA CITY, METRO MANILA — Who says Filipinos aren’t good in mathematics? A study shows that Pinoys’ “ethnomathematical” skills can be traced to the playing of “sungka,” indigenous weaving patterns and yes, even to the livelihood of jeepney drivers and “sari-sari” store owners.

A recent report by a professor from the Ateneo De Manila showed that the Filipino culture is actually mathematically inclined. In fact, some of these “ethnomathematics” can be integrated into current teaching techniques in math.

The report, spearheaded by the Department of Science and Technology and headed by Dr. Catherine Vistro-Yu of ADMU, stated that the country’s ethnic and tribal groups are fertile sources for mathematical knowledge, applicable for various labor and professional communities.

Yu cited numerous examples where ethnic activities constituted mathematical techniques. One is the “sungka” — a traditional two-player board game wherein the goal is to remove cowrie shells from small holes until only one hole is filled. The first one to fill their set of holes wins. Yu said the sungka facilitates numerical computations by the player to find the best method of winning the game using a variety of subtracting, adding, multiplying and dividing the shells.

Another form of local ethnomathematics is weaving patterns, gong music and kinship system of the tribal Kankana-ey of the Mountain Province. The weaving patterns is found to follow frieze group structures. The Kankana-ey use four of the seven frieze group structures.

She added that jeepney drivers in the Philippines possess computational, spatial and visual skills that enable them to pick up passengers, keep track who has paid already and weave through traffic.

Even jeepney drivers are said to have some strong mathematical techniques. “Much of the successful collection of the fare is due to trust between and among the passengers and the jeepney driver. However, without a doubt, a certain amount of mathematical skills must be involved,” Yu said.

Yu also pointed out the economics of sari-sari stores that enable store owners to extend credit to customers which could not be done in large supermarkets.

“Clearly, if one were to document the mathematical activities of each of these groups, one would have a thick book of resource for Filipino students. The role of Ethnomathematics in capacity building is important because Ethnomathematics empowers and can bring about genuine integration and relevance,” Yu said.

Yu’s report, which was presented during Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) Forum on Best Practices on Human Resource Capacity Building in Science and Mathematics Teacher Education, can also apply to the unique payment system used for mobile phone credit loading. The prepaid system, while created in the Philippines, was widely used in the country and paved the way for more affordable and manageable mobile phone usage.

Perhaps these little activities, no matter how trivial already indicate our culture’s mathematical prowess.

Just recently, Filipino elementary and high school students from different schools won several international awards, some winning top prizes.

In early 2009, Carmela Antoinette Lao from Saint Jude Catholic School won a bronze medal at the 50th International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) recently held in Bremen, Germany. Fourteen students won top awards in the Australian Mathematics Competition. Three more high school teens won bronze awards in the 21st Asia Pacific Mathematics Olympiad at the Ateneo De Manila University.

The Philippines also has notable mathematicians such as Roselle Ambubuyog, a visually impaired mathematics genius who is now part of a Spanish company developing software for blind people. Another is award-winning mathematian Queena Lee-Chua, a professor at the Ateneo De Manila University. Such pedigree of people point to Filipinos’ capabilities in the field of mathematics.

Photo of sungka courtesy of Mangtacio’s gallery.

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