The image above illustrates Serrano López's research.
For the second consecutive year, Allechar Serrano López, a fifth-year math graduate student, has received the university's highly competitive Teaching Assistant Award (UTA). The UTA program is designed to assist departments in trying out new ideas in undergraduate teaching.
As a teaching assistant, Serrano López has challenged cultural norms about mathematics by working to create a more inclusive and diverse classroom. Ethnomathematics is the study of the relationship between mathematics and culture—the goal of ethnomathematics is to recognize the contributions of other cultures, with the understanding that math can be taught in different ways to different groups of people.
“Mathematics is traditionally presented as a European creation—with mathematics seen as a superior intellectual activity reserved for a few,” said Serrano López. “Unfortunately, this can lead to a bias where certain cultures are favored over others. With mathematics, this bias often inadvertently restricts who gets to do and study math. Mathematical traditions outside of Europe don’t fit this mold and are often largely dismissed from the history of mathematics. Our students go through a history of math class and are unaware of the contributions of indigenous people to the ﬁeld. My goal is to change that.”
Growing up in Costa Rica, Serrano López never thought about what mathematics meant for the natives of her country. She had learned about the Incas and Mayans, of course, but hadn’t realized the indigenous people in her country had built stone spheres (legend says they were cannonballs shot by the god of thunder to drive away the god of wind). These spheres are gathered around former settlements, and archaeologists are still researching the significance and position of them. “In my mind, stone spheres were not mathematical objects,” she said. “The spheres belong to the non-mathematical domain of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, they represent a complex mathematical and engineering project—my people had always been mathematicians but I never knew it.”
Serrano López has taught several courses at the University of Utah and participated in multiple outreach projects. She is committed to promoting underrepresented groups in mathematics and STEM. As an oﬃcer for the student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), she served last year as outreach chair, speaker series co-chair, and conference co-organizer. During the academic year 2020-21, she will serve as president of the chapter. The AWM Speaker Series brings mathematicians from under-represented groups to the university to share their research and their path through mathematics, and all speakers are women and people of color. As a SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) Scholar, Serrano López participated in a national conference and graduate school fair to recruit future graduate students.
Since 1995, University Teaching Assistantships (UTA) have been available to departments on a competitive basis. The purpose of the University Teaching Assistantship program is to improve graduate education programs and training at the University of Utah in the service of undergraduate education through the creative use of graduate teaching assistants. Mentoring of graduate students to assist them in preparing for teaching careers is an integral part of the program.