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This paper describes a decolonial perspective on material agency in the context of STEM education and application. Using the framework of generative STEM, we engaged in case studies with African, African American, South American, and Native American educational communities. This research shows that understanding material agency based on Indigenous knowledge systems can open a rich source of research and education content. Using a suite of simulations, Culturally Situated Design Tools, we apply this body of research to the classroom. One important theoretical conclusion is the contrast to a “content agnostic” position. A generative framework instead offers a robust blend of user agency and instructional guidance. The outcomes indicate statistically significant and notable improvement for STEM skills and interests. We conclude with a contrast to the quantum epistemology approach to posthumanism. We show that the Indigenous material agency framework in generative STEM is a better fit to decolonial aspirations, and that it offers a more transformative vision for the potential role of STEM in transitioning from an extractive to a generative economy.
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Eglash, R., Bennett, A., Lachney, M., & Babbitt, W., Reinhardt, M., Hammond-Soway, D.
Decolonizing posthumanism: Indigenous material agency in generative STEM
British Journal of Educational Technology, 15(4), pp. 1334-1353. DOI 10.1111/bjet.12963.
Decolonizing posthumanism: Indigenous material agency in
generative STEM
Ron Eglash, Audrey Bennett, William Babbitt , Michael Lachney, Martin Reinhardt and Deborah
Hammond-Sowah
Ron Eglash received his B.S. in Cybernetics, his M.S. in Systems Engineering, and his Ph.D. in
History of Consciousness, all from the University of California. His work includes the book
African Fractals, and the online Culturally Situated Design Tools suite. He is currently a
Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Audrey
Bennett is a tenured Professor of Art and Design at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art &
Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is a former Andrew W. Mellon
Distinguished Scholar of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. She studies the design of
transformative images that through interactive aesthetics can permeate cultural boundaries and
impact the way we think and behave. William Babbitt received his BSBA in Finance from Xavier
University, BS in Mathematics and Computer Science from SUNY Empire State College, and
Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Multidisciplinary Sciences. He is currently a
Research Associate at Rensselaer. Michael Lachney received his Ph.D. in Science and
Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His research is on the cultural politics
of educational technology design and implementation. He is currently Assistant Professor,
Michigan State University, Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special
Education. Martin Reinhardt is an Anishinaabe Ojibway citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of
Chippewa Indians from Michigan. He is the owner and CEO of Reinhardt & Associates and an
assistant professor of Native American Studies at Northern Michigan University. Deborah
Hammond-Sowah received her BSc in Computer Engineering from the University of Ghana in
Legon. She is president of Creativity Group, a student-run organization that seeks to create a
collaborative interdisciplinary platform for undergraduate students in problem-solving, and a
Technical Associate at Kumasi Hive. Address for correspondence: Ron Eglash, School of
Information, University of Michigan, 4389 North Quad, 105 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-
1285, USA. Email: eglash@umich.edu
Abstract
This paper describes a decolonial perspective on material agency in the context of STEM
education and application. Using the framework of generative STEM, we engaged in case
studies with African, African American, South American, and Native American educational
communities. This research shows that understanding material agency based on Indigenous
knowledge systems can open a rich source of research and education content. Using a suite of
simulations, Culturally Situated Design Tools, we apply this body of research to the classroom.
One important theoretical conclusion is the contrast to a “content agnostic” position. A
generative framework instead offers a robust blend of user agency and instructional guidance.
The outcomes indicate statistically significant and notable improvement for STEM skills and
interests. We conclude with a contrast to the quantum epistemology approach to
posthumanism. We show that the Indigenous material agency framework in generative STEM is
a better fit to decolonial aspirations, and that it offers a more transformative vision for the
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potential role of STEM in transitioning from an extractive to a generative economy.
Practitioner Notes
What is already known about this topic
• Material agency frameworks can improve our analytic ability to account for real-world
phenomena, without reducing everything to a “social text” or semiotics.
• Material agency frameworks rarely focus on the problem of colonial legacies.
• Mediating the legacy of colonization is especially important for education involving
those who were colonized (eg, descendents of African and Indigenous peoples). A better
way of handling these legacies––a means of decolonizing education––would benefit
all students, colonized and colonizer alike.
What this paper adds
• Understanding material agency based on Indigenous knowledge systems can open a
rich source of research and education content.
• Research on the use of an Indigenous material agency framework in the classroom
allows the use of constructivist strategies without the disadvantage of what we term
a content agnostic position. That is, it is offering a combination of user agency and
teacher guidance.
• While quantum epistemologies are increasingly popular as a framework for material
agency, there are barriers to their application to the decolonial project. This includes
the destruction of native lands and peoples in the case of the nuclear industry; the
discourse of quantum epistemologies in the performance white people selling faux
native spiritualism, and the limitations of quantum metaphors as an investigative
framework.
Implications for practice and/or policy
• Combining Indigenous frameworks for material agency with STEM education offers
profound possibilities for all students, especially those who are underrepresented.
• Moving between simulations of traditional heritage algorithms and their physical rendering
can be a highly effective means to bring Indigenous material agency into classroom
methods.
• Using this generative STEM framework, it is possible to enhance the circulation of
value between schools and communities, creating a broader transformative vision.
Introduction
This paper will describe a decolonial perspective on material agency in the context of STEM
education and application. Our empirical work indicates that frameworks for material agency can
be of strong benefit to education research and practice. But the choice of framework matters. As
Rosiek, Snyder, and Pratt (2020) point out, “the engagement of scholars interested in new
materialism with the relevant Indigenous studies literature remains an infrequent occurrence.”
Rather than utilize frameworks from quantum mechanics or similar trends, we propose that
Indigenous communities have long held robust, functional concepts and practices for
understanding and utilizing collaborative engagements between human and nonhuman material
and semiotic agencies. Using the framework of Generative STEM (Bennett, 2016; Eglash et al.,
2017; Lachney, Babbitt, Bennett, & Eglash, 2019), we will report on our research developing
teaching materials, our development of curricula, and the educational outcomes using this
approach. In terms of learning theory, we find a contrast to what we term the “content agnostic”
position. Instead, the generative framework offers a combination of user agency and
instructional guidance. Our findings show statistically significant increases in STEM interest and
performance; better ties to local communities, and a more robust vision for the ways in which
Indigenous concepts of material agency, combined with advanced technologies, can map out
potential pathways to a more just and equitable world.
Our first case study provides an example of African concepts of material agency from our
fieldwork in Ghana. We will show how the Asante traditionally represented the material agency
of plants, animals, minerals and other substances in terms of reciprocal relations with humans.
We describe how one set of symbolic forms for this generative economy––the stamped cloth
tradition of adinkra––was used in interventions for STEM education for African youth, and its
extensions to African American students. We conclude that education theory for generative
STEM draws on prior frameworks for constructivist learning, but that it allows for a combination
of user agency and teacher guidance.
Our next two case studies examine Indigenous concepts of material agency in North and South
America. The South American case involved trickster figures and their relation to biodiversity
and other forms of stochastic variation. Our examination of its classroom use is from qualitative
data from a teacher professional development workshop in Ecuador. The North American case
involved traditions around wood bending, and its integration of geometric, organic, and
mechanical properties. The outcomes for this intervention come from informal youth education.
Our conclusion contrasts a more common posthuman framework, that using quantum
philosophy, with these Indigenous posthuman materials from generative STEM. We examine
the extent to which quantum philosophy has supported New Age trends in the appropriation of
Native traditions; the ties between quantum physics applications to Native land theft and
destruction, and the limitations of quantum analogies as research in Indigenous knowledge.
Thus, we conclude that the generative approach may provide a better fit to the concept of
decolonizing education, and more promising contributions to just and sustainable forms of
STEM practice and education.
Posthumanist theory: Why Indigenous frameworks matter
Educational inequalities have long been understood as deeply intertwined with broader social
justice issues, many originating in the colonial era. Although today best known as a statistician,
Francis Galton began his fame as an explorer among “savages” in North and South-West
Africa. His 1869 Hereditary Genius became a founding text for educational exclusion practices,
as well as eugenics (a term he coined), based on his quasi-scientific evidence for statements
such as “[t] he average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our
own.” Colonial frameworks for genetic determinism were also applied to gender and economic
class (Gould, 1981). Restricting the best education for upper class white men turned genetic
determinism into self-fulfilling prophecies. Differences in academic achievement could be
interpreted as inevitable biology, yet reinforced through social mechanisms: racial segregation,
styles of pedagogy, textbook content, and other means of reproducing academic restrictions. To
use the title of Fischer et al. (2006) it is not inequality by genes, but rather inequality by design.
Galton was not alone. Statistician Pearson (1901) wrote that “the scientific view of a nation… is
that of an organized whole, kept up to a high pitch of internal efficiency by insuring that its
numbers are substantially recruited from the better stocks, and kept up to a high pitch of
external efficiency by contest, chiefly by way of war with inferior races” (pp. 43–44). Fisher,
Spearman, Terman, Goddard––the list of founding scientists in statistics and psychometrics
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who were also proponents of eugenics and racial theories of intelligence is daunting. While the
scandal of Nazi eugenics paused its march, claims for genetic differences in group mental
characteristics re-emerged in new disciplines by the 1970s (evolutionary psychology,
sociobiology, neurogenetics, etc.).
The postmodernist theories of the 1980s developed in part as a reaction to the ways that
science had co-developed inequality by design. If racism was so deeply embedded in science,
then perhaps relegating race itself to a mere “social construction” could be an effective counter.
By viewing both humanities and science on the level playing field of rhetoric, they might be
reconciled. For example, Richard H. Brown’s Toward a Democratic Science states this explicitly:
“such a synthesizing poetics of truth is the view of science and society as texts.” But the phrase
“social construction” became so ubiquitous that it lost meaning (Hacking, 1999), and scholars
considering the damage caused by “post-truth politics” today often see its origin in these social
text theories (Kofman, 2018).
Thus, one can think of posthumanism as having emerged at a moment when reductive forms of
science had been shown to be suspect, but its replacement with textual relativism was
becoming untenable. It is perhaps no coincidence that two of the most prominent theories,
Pickering’s Mangle of Practice (1995) and Barad’s Meeting the universe halfway (2007) were
both written by physicists. Both understood that postmodernism’s relativist tendencies were
unnecessary. Once we understand that science can be compatible with the idea that the
nonhuman world has a kind of agency to it, we can insist on scientific rigor, while still
maintaining, as the progressive motto of the World Social Forum states, that “another world is
possible.” Pickering stressed the contingency of experiment: scientists are constantly “tuning”
the apparatus, theory, goals, and lab configurations in response to Nature’s reactions. This back
and forth negotiation, the “dance of agency,” eventually ends in a place where the scientist can
find closure (what Barad would call the agential cut), but other choices might have led to
different conclusions.
Both scholars wrestle with the moral implications. Pickering flatly refuses any attempt to see an
inherent moral position, stating that any political alliances would emerge from scholars using the
mangle framework for a particular political purpose. Conversely, Barad sees the ethical
implications as fundamental: individuals are indebted to all Others through an infinite and
radically contingent intra-activity. But her critics point out that it is challenging to square this
account with the means for systematic social action. Washick, Wingrove, Ferguson, and
Bennett (2015), for example, note that in utilizing examples from Leela Fernandes’ account of
women working in a Calcutta jute mill, Barad emphasizes the infinite possibilities for action,
whereas Fernandes points out how diverse actions are nonetheless systematically undermined
by forms of race, gender and class domination.
If the goal is to develop posthuman theories of knowledge and practice that address racialized
inequalities and related forms of injustice originating from colonial era epistemologies, might
there be alternative frameworks from outside the colonial center? Must we be reliant on sub
atomic physics to reveal other ways of thinking? Or is it possible that Indigenous groups such
as Galton’s “savages” or Fernandes’ lower caste jute workers have their own “funds of
knowledge” (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2006) that would constitute a viable framework for
nonhuman agency? In the following sections we describe some of our investigations into
Indigenous posthumanisms, and the possibilities they engender for educational innovation.
Generative STEM from African concepts of material agency
We typically encounter the history of STEM disciplines as if only one linear progression is
possible: in math, for example, we envision climbing from counting to algebra to analytic
geometry, calculus, number theory, and so on. But Western disciplines were created in the
context of what became economies of value extraction. When we are trying to squeeze as much
labor value as possible out of workers in a huge pin factory, or as much ecological value as
possible out of an enormous cotton plantation, concepts like optimization or efficiency appear as
if they were universal physics (see prior quote from Pearson), and the mathematical,
technological and scientific support for value extraction appear to naturally follow. Indigenous
economies in contrast are typically not focused on value extraction; rather they exist to nurture
value circulation. Their forms of STEM are created for the prevention of value alienation.
Indigenous views of material agency, and their equivalent of STEM knowledge and practice, can
thus look very different, progress through a different order, and perhaps are even
unrecognizable though a Western lens.
Our first examples come from our work in the West African nation of Ghana. Here Indigenous
frameworks for nonhuman agency were severely damaged by centuries of colonialism, the
slave trade, and the forced imposition of foreign religions. More recently, neo-colonial relations,
such as land grabs from overseas corporations, have destroyed enormous spans of tropical
forests for planting cacao and palm oil for export. But Indigenous cultures are also sites of
resistance, resilience, and resurgence.
One of the locations for resistance has been traditional shrines for the Indigenous animist
religions, locally called “fetish shrines” (the Portuguese described African religion as worship of
“made objects” or feitiço). Colonial Christian zealots systematically destroyed fetish shrines,
replaced sacred forests with export plantations, and had their practitioners imprisoned or
enslaved.
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In 1927 Sigmund Freud published his essay on “Fetishism,” in which he used African
examples to explain his theory of eroticized clothing or other objects as abnormal violations of
the natural order, much the way missionaries had done for fetish religion. Just as colonialism
enacted forms of violence against fetish religion, neo-colonial policing of sexuality has carried
out similar forms of destruction. Right-wing and evangelical movements today have succeeded
in making “sexual deviance” a crime in many places in Africa; for example, in Uganda “carnal
knowledge against the order of nature” carries a potential penalty of life imprisonment.
Why does the human embrace of agentive material objects cause so much horror and violence
in colonial and neo-colonial regimes? To understand this, let us turn to a surviving fetish temple
in Ghana, a shrine created by the Asante people in Besease. Using the term “Asante shrine” to
avoid the negative connotations of “fetish,” Asante, Kquofi, and Larbi (2015) have described the
meanings of various symbols. In addition, various members of our team have been working on
STEM education from Indigenous knowledge in this region since 1994, along with artisans,
elders, teachers and university faculty (Babbitt, Lachney, Bulley, & Eglash, 2015; Bennett,
Eglash, Lachney, & Babbitt, 2016; Eglash, 1999; Eglash, Lachney, et al., 2019; Lachney,
Bennett, Appiah, & Eglash, 2016). We can begin by describing the symbolism of the stool
depicted in Asante shrines (Figure 1). The royal stool was traditionally the most exalted
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This practice continued long after the abolition of slavery. In 1912 the “missionary review” reports “In
[Ghana] Christianity has become a real power. The authority of the fetish priests has been destroyed, and
heathenism, tho [sic] still fighting and opposing the work of the Christian missionaries, is dying....the
development of the cacao plantations… enabled the Christian natives to contribute about $26 000 to the
expenses of the [missionary] Basel Society in 1910” (Pierson, 1912, p. 390).
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position—Ghana’s capital building in Accra is in the shape of a stool––but simultaneously even
a poor commoner can offer hospitality with a stool. Asante et al. (2015) describe the image of
stools on the walls of the shrine as follows:
The depiction of the adwa (stools) shows that the gnomes are welcome to the temple. For it
is only when one is welcome at a place that he is offered a seat. The gnomes help the
priest (or priestess) in the performance of their duties. For instance… they might show him
a particular plant for preparing medicine to cure diseases. (p. 10)
The “gnomes” are a translation of mmoatia, tiny forest spirits that create a bridge between
human and nonhuman; corporeal and spirit. The traditional relations with nature that were the
foundation of Asante life were those of reciprocity between these two realms. Thus, it is no
surprise that in some cases the human stool symbol shows a reciprocal relation to the gnome’s
stool. The power of one stool (nature) emanates from it, forming another stool (human), whose
power emanates back to form the first stool (nature). It is recursive, much like the Escher sketch
of two hands drawing each other (Figure 2). This is a general representation of how the material
agency of plants, animals, minerals and other substances forms reciprocal relations with
humans in particular ways in the Asante conceptual and practical framework.
Figure 1: The stool image in an Asante shrine, and a wood stool from the same culture. Shrine image by
the author. Stool image courtesy of Deco Art Africa.
Figure 2: The Asante symbol shows power emanating from nature’s stool (upside down) creating the
human’s stool (right side up), and vice-versa. It is analogous to the reciprocal creation in Escher’s famous
“drawing hands.” Asante symbol photo by the author. M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” © 2020 The M.C.
Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com.
We referred to the stool depiction as “symbol” but a better translation might be “flow chart.”
Figure 3 is an extension of the stool flow chart for the Asante production of adinkra, a stamped
cloth tradition. Our information is primarily on the work of adinkra artisans in the town of Ntonso,
widely known for this type of handcrafting. Starting in the upper left corner, we see the late
Gabriel Boyake, our friend and colleague who sadly passed in 2019, preparing bark from
Bridelia ferruginea, the badie tree. After pounding, the bark is soaked, and the first decoction
used as medicine (aduru) with significant biomedical properties (Akuodor et al., 2012). Further
boiling produces the ink used to stamp cloth with adinkra symbols. Both medicine and ink are
available in a “moral economy” that works by a different logic
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than capitalism’s emphasis on
extracting value for the highest profit (Mohr, 2013, p. 200). Value that is generated by labor is
returned without becoming alienated from those who created it.
Figure 3: Unalienated value flow in the Adinkra production system. Image created by the author.
Similarly, the bark strained out is not tossed away, but is part of a broad array of strategies for
cycling detritus back to nature, including the maintenance of decaying matter in sacred groves.
These biodiversity hotspots enrich geographically wider ecosystems; for example, Kankam and
Sicotte (2013) show that monkey populations that survive in sacred forests radiate out to other
areas. Ultimately this enriches the ecosystems where the badie tree grows, thus completing the
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Morh points out that one reason Western medicine was initially rejected was economic: their doctors
demanded large payments up front, whereas traditional healers changed a small fee but did not ask for
any substantive payment until you were cured, in which case you were merely returning value to the one
who generated it. Value returns also work in the negative: the commons for traditional healers is shared
risk. Western extractive economies optimize by externalizing costs, so they ensure that all risk falls on the
sick.
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cycle. Both labor value and ecological value circulate in unalienated forms. The adinkra symbols
themselves are a kind of expressive or semiotic value that also circulates. In the labor
commons, we see the adinkra symbol Funtunfunefu showing two crocodiles that share the
same stomach: “by feeding you I feed myself, so why fight”? In the ecological commons, we see
the symbol Asase Ye Duru for “earth in balance.”
The circulation of unalienated value for labor, ecosystem, and expression comprises generative
justice as we have defined it elsewhere (Eglash, 2016), and begins to get at the reason why
authoritarian systems of extraction find it so repugnant. In Western epistemologies, we have
historically approached these concepts strictly in terms of negative feedback: deviance of any
kind must be suppressed. But Indigenous epistemologies that bring together human and
nonhuman agencies are not monuments to stabilization. In the African traditions, they are
sources of fecundity, self-mobilizing and self-modifying. That is why recursive geometric forms
(fractals) are so common in African design, and why Europe was so late in its discovery of
fractal forms (Eglash, 1999; Lachney et al., 2016; Taylor, 2005). Four hundred years of slavery,
colonialism, and extraction economies have taken their toll, but forms of resilience and
resurgence can also be found. For example, the first country in the world to constitutionally
prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation was South Africa, and the arguments for that
innovation drew on Indigenous traditions that supported human diversity (Murray & Roscoe,
1998).
Generative STEM with adinkra design tools: Classroom experiments
We have been seeking ways to utilize generative justice as the basis for the concept of
generative STEM education as well. Just as circulating value between humans and nature
keeps the earth in balance, we propose that circulating value between communities and schools
allows for less alienated forms of education. The website we have created for this purpose,
Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDTs, online at https://csdt.org) allows students to
investigate the design practices of Indigenous cultures, utilize a blocks-based scripting interface
to simulate them, and in some cases physically render their designs using 3D printing, laser
etching, etc.
In our test of the adinkra CSDT, we carried out a quasi-experimental controlled study (Babbitt et
al., 2015). About 20 Students in a Ghanaian junior high school were randomly assigned to either
a control group using a popular educational application (GeoGebra), or an intervention group
using the adinkra CSDT site (https://csdt.org/culture/adinkra/index.html). Survey instruments
measured both interest in computing careers and knowledge of the math and computing topics
covered. The results using a paired T-Test showed a significant advantage for the scores for the
Adinkra computing based lesson (M = 45.22, SD = 18.67) in comparison to the GeoGebra
computing based lesson (M = 13.87, SD = 15.93); the difference was statistically significant at
the .001 confidence level.
The students using the adinkra CSDT site were able to review the cultural background of
adinkra (see above link) as well as scripts for generating its shapes. The cultural background
was derived from conversations with artisans and elders, examining the geometric and
computational ideas embedded throughout the 60 or so adinkra symbols. As we see in the
Asase Ye Duru symbol in Figure 3, log curves are used in adinkra to depict the spiral growth
forms found in living structures (animal horns, growing plants, etc.), as well as other kinds of
material agency, such as fluid turbulence. In the Asante shrine rituals, paired dancers whirl their
hands in opposite directions, performing the paired log spirals associated with Tanu, the river
spirit (Figure 4). This reflection symmetry, which we also see in Asase Ye Duru, is just one of
the four geometric transformations used in the symbol structures.
After a discovery learning approach in which students were asked to research and present their
understandings of the cultural background, they used the scripting interface to simulate adinkra
symbols, learning to code the shapes as “heritage algorithms” as well as the underlying
mathematics of log spirals and geometric transformations (Figure 5). Readers can examine this
curriculum on our website at which is how it was delivered to the students.
Papert (1980) and others have suggested what we term a “content agnostic” position. That is,
that students simply program graphics from, as Papert (1980) puts it, “wherever fancy is bred.”
Figure 4: Fluid turbulence in NASA computational modeling, Tanu river symbol, and Tanu dance. Fluid
turbulence courtesy NASA. Symbol and dance photos by the author.
Figure 5: CSDT for adinkra simulations; Detroit student’s physical render. Photo by author.
The main representative for that approach today is the Scratch website. The Scratch motto is
“we turn youth from consumers into producers.” In our examination of content on the Scratch
community site (Lachney et al., 2016, para 14) we found:
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6530 results for McDonalds; 4600 for Disney Princess; 8210 for Transformers; 17 400
results for Call of Duty; and numerous others such as Bratz, American Girl, Strawberry
Shortcake, Power Rangers, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Adidasand let us not overlook
over 3 million search hits for Pokemon.
In other words children’s lives have been colonized by corporations. A purely “content agnostic”
framework is no longer viable, given the commodification of childhood. On the other hand,
Papert’s framework was right in that highlighting the agency of students in creating these
designs is paramount (Bennett, 2016). One goal of generative STEM is to move away from the
assumption that agency and guidance are diametrically opposed. CSDTs allow design activities
to be creative, but simultaneously utilizing heritage algorithms that oppose primitivist
stereotypes, and make evident the sophistication of Indigenous concepts and practices.
Similarly, we see our blocks-based scripting interface (Csnap) as combining both Papert’s
universalized concept of “body syntonic” learning, as well as culture-specific aspects of
decolonization. In Papert’s framework students would think of themselves as the turtle on the
screen. In the adinkra tools they are guiding not a graphics turtle cursor, but rather an image of
the carving hand on the screen (a photo of the hand of Paul Boyake, Gabriel’s brother). Indeed,
students can even be seen positioning their own hands against the screen for angles, reflection
symmetries and other calculations.
The photo in Figure 5 shows an African American high school student from Detroit Michigan,
who used laser cutting to etch her adinkra CSDT simulation into wood, and then hand-painted
and braided a frame for it, bringing the ecology-mind-body flow full circle. In this case we did not
run a controlled study, but improvement in pre/post survey contrasts show an increase in STEM
interest and skills. Our external evaluators for this project summarized:
Overall, all participants showed a notable increase in their interest to use and apply
patterns associated with mathematics. Students noted that they liked to use math and
computers to design patterns. Students also noted that understanding computing would
eventually allow them to help their families and that they recognize that there are
sophisticated mathematical and computing patterns present in Indigenous people’s
knowledge.
Again, there are two parts to the learning theory we invoke here. On the one hand, a content
agnostic position can leave commodification forces unchecked. For example, Avle, Hui,
Lindtner, and Dillahunt (2019) show how maker exercises can be embedded in regimes where
the creation of an “entrepreneurial self ” disempowers local communities. On the other hand,
there have been studies showing demonstrable advantages in student motivation and learning
in the context of physical making (Vongkulluksn, Matewos, Sinatra, & Marsh, 2018). We
proposed that the generative STEM framework offers the means to avoid the content agnostic
position for makers––it helps to show how the entrepreneurial self is not the only kind of
individual you can become–– while guiding them toward alternative, more communally oriented
possibilities.
Generative STEM as returns of value to the communities of origin
In other exercises with African American students we have focused on cornrow braiding
patterns as the CSDT for an embodied heritage algorithm. Students in those exercises explored
these patterns in contexts ranging from African traditions, to resistance under enslavement, to
AfroFuturist reimaginings. As a means of circulating value back to the community, we also
worked with adult braiding shop owners, exploring 3D printing of their CSDT-designed
mannequin heads and technologies for measuring and treating hair damage from commercial
products (Lachney et al., 2019). Adult learners were especially pointed in their positive
comments regarding the value of STEM education that aims to bring the fruits of science and
engineering labors to the grass roots and not just corporate bank accounts (Lachney, Babbitt,
Bennett, & Eglash, 2020).
In the case of both cornrows and adinkra CSDTs, these students and adults showed
improvement in pre/post attitudes and/or knowledge of STEM (Babbitt et al., 2015; Eglash &
Bennett, 2009). CSDTs include information about the cultural background as well as the
simulations. It is critical that students understand, for example, how adinkra artisans came to
develop an abstraction around logarithmic spirals through empirical observation and practices in
the pre-colonial traditions that developed these heritage algorithms for material agency.
At the university level, undergraduates at Creativity Group (CG: a student-focused organization
in Ghana) have collaborated with us, starting with real-time video exchanges with the Detroit
students in Figure 5. In summer 2019, we worked with the undergraduates in CG’s Kumasi
location (Kumasi Hive) to develop experiments aimed to replace the traditional adinkra ink
production method with solar-powered equivalents. Again, the standard engineering and
business background of these students had emphasized a content agnostic, universalizing
perspective: the language of optimization, profit maximization, scaling up. After training with
CSDTs, students were better able to describe the need to think about culturally specific aspects
of the intervention: How will this impact the gendered division of labor; water collection, the
entire network of social ecology? Out of this work we developed an “artisanal cyborg” approach
to create human-machine collaborations. This vision for a generative economy would keep labor
value, ecological value and expressive value in unalienated forms throughout Ghanaian crafting,
such as AI-enabled digital fabrication, sourcing, and authentication that enhances craft
upskilling, forest care-taking, and consumer-producer relationships (Eglash, Robert, et al.,
2019).
In summary: a persistent theoretical theme has emerged in this work. Standard learning
theories, and many of their technical contexts, emphasized a content agnostic position: the
world is full of stuff, and our digital technology slices and dices this raw material into whatever
we desire. In contrast, our research on the generative economies has taught us that another
form of technology is possible. Their worlds are relational, and production happens through
collaboration and negotiation. A generative learning theory is not content agnostic, nor does it
impose content from the top down. It is content aware, in the same way that Indigenous
communities see an awareness of the non-human material world.
Generative STEM through trickster conceptions of biodiversity: Routes and roots across
the Americas
In our conclusion we note the advantages for posthumanism in Indigenous frameworks over the
more popular quantum epistemologies. One of the problematic outcomes of quantum
epistemologies is the tendency to view all Indigenous cultures as identical “noble savages”
whose holistic oneness with nature traps them in a timeless past, erasing specific histories
(Wolf, 2010). African and Native American Indigenous cultures have had dramatically different
relations between humans and non-humans (Eglash, 2013). As Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee
Nation) summarizes in his review of oral and written Native stories: “Our literatures are just one
more vital way that we have countered those forces of erasure and given shape to our own
12
ways of being in the world.” The trickster figures in Native American stories are fundamentally
stochastic, and form an epistemological network with games of chance, chance-based
divination, and maximizing entropy in agricultural practices (Eglash, 2002, 2013). Nature throws
floods, droughts, pestilence and other disasters like casting gambling sticks. Only an equally
entropic set of genetic resources keeps you prepared. As a result, Native American agroecology
deliberately developed an astonishing array of foods that dramatically changed the world,
including potatoes, tomatoes, rubber, cinchona (anti-malarial), corn, squash, beans, peanuts,
peppers, melons, pineapple, avocado, blueberries, strawberries, tobacco, vanilla, cocoa, and
other plants (Eglash, 2016, p. 379).
The localization of anthropological studies to specific geographic areas is not entirely mistaken.
Earlier versions of anthropology created primitivist stereotypes by gross generalizations across
distinctly different groups. On the other hand, postcolonial scholars have pointed out that the
mobility of Indigenous peoples and concepts were always very troubling to colonists, and we
now recognize the pre-colonial trade routes branching across continents as part of the
sophistication contradicting colonial narratives (Beaudry & Parno, 2013). For example, tomatoes
were likely first domesticated in Ecuador (Razifard et al., 2020), but had already traveled to
South Carolina by the time Europeans arrived. Archaeological evidence shows that corn was
probably domesticated in southern Mexico about 9000 years ago, but eventually made its way
to its northern limits in the Great Lakes region in about AD 1000. There it became part of the
“three sisters” agroecology which linked biodiverse growing and nutrient-diverse diets.
Reinhardt (2015) describes how a collaboration between STEM frameworks and this Indigneous
biodiversity developed into the “Decolonizing Diet Project” at Northern Michigan University’s
Center for Native American Studies. With 25 Native and non-Native volunteers adopting a diet
ranging from 25% to 100% Indigenous species of plants and animals in the Great Lakes
Region, and following an exercise regimen equivalent to a pre-colonial lifestyle, a variety of
health and social benefits emerged. Traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering techniques were
learned or reinforced; traditional cooking methods found resurgence through potluck, recipe
sharing and cooking demos; gains in other Anishinaabe cultural recovery (language, music
during potlucks, etc.) were evident, and health monitoring by high-tech methods became more
frequent. The improvements in fundamental health indices such as BMI stood in striking
contrast to the devastating effects of diabetes and other “diseases of colonization.”
Just as the Indigenous stochastic framework can be applied to diet––the relation between
trickster’s unpredictability and the human maintenance of biodiversity in agroecology and
consumption––we have applied it to STEM education using a variety of techniques. In Ecuador
we conducted professional development for math teachers using a Spanish language version
of the “woven heaven, tangled earth” CSDT (https://csdt.org/culture/whte/index.html). This tool
draws on an indigenous framework in which heavenly grids––the four directions of the cosmos
represented in weaving looms, roof lattices, etc.––contrast with the statistical variation of the
trickster in creating tangled paths and patterns in the organic complexities of ecosystems
(Figure 6).
In workshops with math teachers in Quito and on the Galapagos islands, we explored these
heritage algorithms through simulations of South American body painting, pottery, molas and
other visualizations of nature’s complexity (Figure 6). In the case of the Shipibo designs in
Figure 6 they are described as patterns appearing on the cosmic serpent. Sources of these
visions for the artists include ayahuasca, a psychotropic tea derived from the Banisteriopsis
caapi vine. This trinity of growing, making and understanding––the circulation of unalienated
ecological value, labor value, and semiotic value––fit well within the generative justice
framework. Traditional agroecology of the Amazon––mobile burns for intercropped gardens,
composting of charcoal and organic waste to create “tierra prieta” black soil, etc.––enhanced
both human and nonhuman biodiversity and sustainability (Heckenberger, Russell, Toney, &
Schmidt, 2007; Reyes-García et al., 2008). By what epistemic regimen are these material-
semiotic rheological networks created and maintained; and how might understanding this
“mangle” (Pickering, 1995) of human and nonhuman agencies help put us on the path toward
more generative educational and economic systems?
Anthropologists Kohn (2013), Descola (2014) and others have eloquently described these
Amazonian systems in terms of post-human or more-than-human materialities, and the ways
that exchanges and syntheses between human and nonhuman collaborators are mutually
sustaining. But anthropological voices, even those embracing the new materialism, seem to
somehow return to the same old tropes. In his review of a dialog between Descola and STS
scholar Bruno Latour, Fischer (2014) notes the persistent contrast: Western ontologies are
“machines for multiplying hybrids, while animisms and totemisms are machines for preventing
Figure 6: Professional development in Ecuador explored heritage algorithms through simulations of South
American pottery and other visualizations of nature’s underlying forces of complexity. Pottery image:
photo courtesy of Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons. Script and graphic: photo by the author.
hybrids from further multiplying.” Latour’s claim is that science creates innovation because it
allows hybridity, whereas Indigenous knowledge is static because animism freezes society in
accordance with fixed categories in nature.
As noted previously (Eglash, 1997), Latour is assuming a Western perspective in which nature
is static. From an Indigenous perspective nature is full of self-modifying unpredictability. It is the
Western view that has, in many ways, based its assumptions on static, linear frameworks:
technical obsessions with optimization, linear control, routinization, and so on lead to poor
models and practices such as mass production agriculture. And that is why, even today, the
plants that were produced over several millennia of trickster-inspired agroecology provide much
of the world’s dietary biodiversity, where as Europe’s monotheism-inspired monocropping
continues to be plagued with blights, soil depletion, exploitative labor, pesticide poisoning,
14
contributions to obesity and other disasters (Altieri, 2009; Sentell, 2015).
3
From that workshop, we found that the Ecuadorian teachers embraced many of these ideas, but
also felt the pressures of colonial legacies. Despite some spectacular simulations they created
for the trickster paths (including an exercise where they brought in natural and cultural objects to
be simulated), teachers overwhelmingly preferred the lattice––in this case the Cartesian-like
beadwork CSDT––over the more complex geometries. Since beadwork is common in Ecuador,
this was still a reasonable compromise between the pressures to meet conventional education
standards and a means to connect the material basis of Indigenous knowledge with its symbolic
expression in the classroom (and we did, indeed, find cultural examples of stochastic beadwork
where randomness in colors plays a role). But the bead simulations are also nearest to a
content agnostic learning medium: in theory any pattern can be made, so the focus on heritage
algorithms can be quickly lost unless deliberate effort is applied. One might say that the content
agnostic position is a kind of basin of attraction; a gravitational pull away from content aware
that is hard to resist, especially in postcolonial contexts.
Generative STEM through wood bending: A case study in Anishinaabe arcs
In the case of North American Indigenous cultures, particularly in the Northeast, lattices often
use arcs rather than straight paths. The Anishinaabe Arcs CSDT (https://csdt.org/culture/anish
inaabearcs/index.html) allows students to create 3D iterative structures using the heritage
algorithms of wigwams, canoe ribs, baskets and other structures. In order to retain the sense of
handcrafting, and prevent labor alienation, paper printouts of overhead views of the
3
That is not to say Western history is monolithic: indeed our CSDTs for Celtic history, Appalachian culture
and other western variants (eg, https://csdt.org/culture/quilting/index.html; https://csdt.org/culture/syste
msscience/index.html) have been created with the goal of engaging all students, White included, in
counter-stories for practices of resistance and liberation within Western histories.
studentcreated 3D structures are placed over wood boards. Student drill holes where the virtual
structure intersects with a virtual plane, and hand-place reeds. This process of creating a hybrid
of human-machine crafting (Figure 7) resulted in both statistically significant improvement for
Figure 7: From virtual design, to paper template, to physical rendering with the Anishinaabe Arcs CSDT.
Photos by the author.
STEM performance and interest. Of 38 students (about half identifying as Native American), the
mean on the pre was 3.71, and the post was 11.32. A paired T-Test showed difference in
means to be statistically significant with T = −11.159, df = 37, p = .000 (Eglash, Lachney, et al.,
2019). Equally important, statements from students indicated this role of material agency was
having its intended effect, for example:
I believe my design represents the two worlds I come from. One being of my Native
heritage and the other of the technology era. With the completion of my structure I was able
to combine two worlds and accumulate an interest in engineering…. This project has taught
me that I can provide and give back for my people while incorporating important traditions
and teachings to create a productive environment.
Conclusion
The outcomes of our research with Indigenous communities show a rich set of possibilities for
developing translations between Western and Indigenous STEM concepts. They also show that
Indigenous cultures had utilized concepts of material agency that offered profound forms of
support for biodiversity and egalitarian relationships. Finally, we show that utilizing
representations of these traditions in secondary education and teacher professional
development can show statistically significant and notable improvements in young people (and
adult) interest in and/or understanding of STEM and, in the case of students, a strong
engagement with teachers. There are also potential contributions for learning theory, as this
framework combines user agency with guidance from heritage algorithms. However, a common
response to our work is to ask that we translate these material agency theories to the popular
frameworks of quantum epistemology. Below we offer some cautions against that translation.
We do not condemn the efforts to utilize quantum physics in metaphorical approaches to
understanding nonhuman agency, or applying those frameworks to whatever scholars wish to
discuss. But with the power of academic success comes the responsibility to be accountable for
its implications. In a discussion of juxtaposing decolonial frameworks from Indigenous scholars
(such as Kawagley (2006) and Smith (2012)) with quantum epistemologies, Patel (2015)
suggests “answerability” or Battiste’s “response-ability” as strategies in decolonial education.
Thus, using Barad’s (2007) original framework of feminist conceptions of quantum
entanglement, diffraction and so on is not in contradiction with insisting on a social and ethical
accounting for the material dimensions of the quantum epistemology framework.
There is a broad precedent for this kind of accountability in education textbook content analysis,
where scholars have shown sexist, militarist and ethnocentric bias (Blumberg, 2008; Hill &
Robertson, 2009; Hudson, 1987). Uncovering these “invisible barriers” (Blumberg) is crucial to
improving education equity. This can also improve understanding in later professional careers.
During the Google walkouts of 2018, many software professionals were shocked to hear how
their computational technologies would be used for autonomous drone strikes and other military
applications (Morris, 2019). Deleterious implications should not be delivered by surprise after
one commits to a career.
16
The utilization of quantum physics in the form of nuclear energy and weapons is well
documented; less well known are the ways those practices have been particularly destructive to
native communities. For example, in 1946 the US began its nuclear colonization of the Marshall
Islands with the detonation of dozens of nuclear bombs on or around the islands, which covered
them in significant levels of radioactive fallout. US government documents suggest that officials
were well aware of the intergenerational harm they were causing to the Indigenous population
(Johnston, 2015) and today the radiation levels are still worse than those of Chernobyl or
Fukushima (Abella, Moline, Nikolić-Hughes, Hughes, & Ruderman, 2019). More upstream in the
production chain, uranium mining on Navajo lands has also resulted in intergenerational harm.
While mining ended in 1986, the Navajo Birth Cohort Study (Shuey, Ong, & Lewis, 2014) shows
radiation contamination continues to this day, with increased cancer, kidney failure,
developmental disabilities for children, and other health disasters (Lewis et al., 2015). In the
case of nuclear energy, the federal “Monitored Retrievable Storage” program from 1987 to 1993
focused almost exclusively on siting nuclear waste dumps on Native lands (NIRS, 2005), and
that struggle continues today with Shoshone protests against the Yucca Mountain site (Kuletz,
2004).
At the same time, the quantum metaphor is used by advocates for the New Age movement,
such as Deepak Chopra’s “Quantum Healing”. Since the 1980s, this pseudoscience has fed the
emergence of the “plastic shaman”: the appropriation of Indigenous culture by White con artists
who sell “authentic” spiritual experiences, books, and other faux-native products. For example,
Diane Collin’s “QuantumThink” (2011) cites a Native American ceremony as the embodiment of
her views. Collins was subsequently featured on the “kindred spirits” radio show by Lynn
Andrews, whose plastic shaman act has been so offensive that there have been Native
community protests at her appearances. As Aldred (2000) explains in the context of North
American New Agers, “their fetishization of Native American spirituality not only masks the
social oppression of real Indian peoples but also perpetuates it” (p. 330). The appropriation of
Indigenous symbolism by such “spiritual hucksters” can be seen as an extension of settler
colonialism in which White people claim ownership of lands, resources, and symbolics with little
understanding of them or their histories (Churchill, 2003).
At the very least both the technical deployment of quantum physics in Native land destruction,
and the metaphorical use in New Age fakery, could be introduced in the uses of quantum
epistemologies. Such reforms are common in education fields. We no longer have genetic
engineering textbooks without chapters in bioethics, or energy textbooks without chapters on
sustainability. Similarly, many US universities now include Indigenous land acknowledgements
in their public communications.
But there is one more problem we need to look at: the fact that Indigenous ways of knowing
already had theories and practices of material agency before European contact. And here is the
crucial difference. Substituting metaphors from particle physics for descriptions of actual
Indigenous knowledge and practices may drive research away from important sources of
knowledge. Research in collaboration with Indigenous communities means you can engage with
the actual relations between wood, seeds, dung, and milk; beading, carving, lashing, gathering,
hunting, and cooking; drumming, praying, protesting, playing, teaching, and theorizing; in short
an entire ecosystem of human and nonhuman interactions richly interwoven with the
cosmological theory and practice that make up Indigenous ways of knowing. In contrast, the
references to Indigenous knowledge by quantum epistemology advocates are too often a
research dead end.
Once you declare that ancient people simply knew quantum truths intuitively through “holistic
thinking,” what more can be said? And if it is not merely intuition, but rather achievements
developed by centuries of hard work from Indigenous thought and practice, then why do we
need to replace authentic accounts of that, as we strive to offer in this report, with quantum
physics as the explanatory framework? We have shown that detailed computational modeling of
Indigenous knowledge can reveal the differences between various Indigenous frameworks and
perspectives. In contrast, quantum epistemologies only seem to repeat the trope of
“entanglement” or other metaphors, regardless of which context is under analysis (Washick et
al., 2015).
Posthumanist thinking and new materialism is much broader than quantum epistemology alone.
Many other frameworks abound: Pickering’s mangle, Bennett’s vitalism, Haraway’s
naturecultures, and so on. In this paper we endeavored to show that Indigenous ways of
knowing can also create more earthly, vibrant possibilities for fleshing out a theory and practice
of material agency and its potential roles in just and sustainable futures. One can empower
students and communities with contemporary science and technology without adopting a
content agnostic position that ignores their histories and identities. Using the generative STEM
framework, we can draw on Indigenous knowledge as a basis for understanding material
agency, and placing these elements in collaborative engagement with contemporary
technological advances in computing, engineering, mathematics and other STEM topics. Once
that has been done, a discussion of the destructive effects of the nuclear industry need not be
covered up or ignored; to the contrary its discussion becomes all the more relevant.
While much of the origins of generative STEM are rooted in Indigenous traditions, the
framework is specifically developed for embracing learners of all identities and backgrounds,
and we make special efforts to ensure that students from majority positions of race or gender
are not reduced to positions of guilt or remorse. We propose that this approach can have
immediate and practical benefits to educational practices, school-community relations, and even
alternative visions for a generative economy that better provides pathways to a just and
sustainable future.
Acknowledgements
The authors would like to acknowledge National Science Foundation grants DRL-1640014 and
DGE-0947980 in support of this work.
Statements on open data, ethics, and conflict of interest
The data of this study can be made available upon request.
The Institutional Review Board at the University of Michigan approved this study. Informed
consent was obtained from all adult and youth participants and youth guardians. Pseudonyms
were used for individuals. The authors have no conflict of interest.
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