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Educators Want Mesoamerican Math Tool Nepohualtzintzin In Arizona Classrooms

Plastic corn kernels clicked on the large Nepohualtzintzin as retired professor Sara Rocio Ruiz Galicia showed her audience how to count to 10.

Mesoamericans — Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs — used this mathematical tool, which does basic addition and can solve differential equations.

Which is part of what drove teacher Sharon Stefan to be at the first workshop given by Ruiz and another retired professor from Mexico named Carlos Carillo Suarez. They encountered a large audience wanting to learn how the pre-Hispanic computer works.

“I am actually really excited to be able to use this in my math classes,” Stefan said.

Stefan had two specific classes in mind. One is how to teach math, for elementary school teachers. And the other is a developmental course for kids struggling with the subject.

“Often times, students that don’t have a very strong math background, mathematics is just a complete mystery. And I love the fact that you can see how the numbers appear concretely,” she said. 

The professors recently visited Arizona’s two biggest cities on a mission to spread knowledge of the Nepohualtzintzin, which was lost until the 1950s. Ruiz and Carrillo are married. Together they've been studying the device for about a decade.

“It’s not just for learning math. It develops reasoning. It develops the spirit,” Carillo said in Spanish.

The professors say this is because a Nepohualtzintzin also reflects the human body, the duality of life and our heliocentric solar system. It has a historical and philosophical basis.

“How the ancients saw the world and the universe,” Ruiz said in Spanish.  

But is this gadget that Mesoamericans actually wore on their wrist more of a calculator, than a computer?

Carrillo seemed to compromise. First he called the Nepohualtzintzin a scientific calculator because it does square roots, conversions and algebra. 

“You notice that it doesn’t have batteries. That it’s inert. Because what’s really working is the computer you have in your brain,” Carillo said. 

The human ability to compute is part of Laurita Moore’s reason for calling the Nepohualtzintzin a computer. The other is its connection to astronomy.

“Early peoples were much more knowledgeable about early astronomy than we are because that was their smartphone. That was their television. That’s what they looked at all the time,” she said.

Moore teaches about the Nepohualtzintzin in a history unit of her computer information systems course at South Mountain Community College. She found it while researching the abacus, which she says has limited function, compared to a Nepohualtzintzin.

“It’s probably the most elaborate system of math manipulatives that I know of, that I’ve ever encountered,” Moore said.

“It’s probably the most elaborate system of math manipulatives that I know of, that I’ve ever encountered.” — Laurita Moore, computer information systems teacher

That students can see the math they do on a Nepohualtzintzin, instead of having to memorize, is a key reason why Stefan wants it in Arizona classrooms.

By the end of the first workshop, she’d stepped in to help translate for the professors. Stefan said she quickly felt a personal connection to the Nepohualtzintzin. Her parents came to the United States from Guatemala. Some of her roots are Mayan.  

“For some of the local teachers, they have students that look like me. Have the same background as I do,” she said.

Latinos and Native Americans together make up roughly half Arizona’s K-12 population. Stefan thinks the Nepohualtzintzin can be a historical bridge to their ancestors who did major work in science and math. 

“To give kids that idea that this is part of their heritage, like, the math runs in their blood, I think is fantastic,” she said.

Nepohualtzintzins could go into classrooms pretty quickly, Stefan said. But having enough to go around, and being able to get more, are major hurdles.

The counting tools are hand-made in Mexico, at least for now. Moore said 3-D printing might be a way to change things.

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.