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Lessons Learned (and Taught) while Traveling the World in a Canoe


In the summer of 2014, BYU alum Linda Furuto sailed across the equator in a canoe. The canoe—a traditional Polynesian voyaging vessel named Hōkūle‘a—was manned by 13 crew members and navigated entirely using the wind, stars, and God’s other creations for guidance.

Furuto’s journey from her Hawaiian home to the island of Tahiti was the first leg of an expedition that took the Hōkūle‘a over 42,000 nautical miles across the world as part of an effort to educate the global community about the STEM principles behind traditional Polynesian voyaging and Mālama Honua—“caring for Island Earth.”

As the 2017 CPMS Alumni Achievement Award recipient, Furuto spoke on October 5 about how her oceanic voyage taught her valuable lessons about her life purpose and provided her with an opportunity to learn with and from others.

Furuto already has an impressive repertoire of educational experiences that includes receiving a bachelor’s degree from BYU, a master’s degree from Harvard, and a PhD from UCLA—all in mathematics education. Her research as a mathematics education professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa centers on STEM education and ethnomathematics—studying the relationship between mathematics, history, language, and culture.

In addition to participating in the first leg of the trip as an apprentice navigator and education specialist, Furuto subsequently traveled to other locations across the globe including American Samoa, Samoa, Swain’s Island, New Zealand, South Africa, Virginia, Washington DC, and New York City.

“The world is a natural classroom from mountains to sea, and what occurs outside the classroom is equally as important as what occurs inside,” Furuto said, revealing her educational philosophy.

Throughout her journey on the Hōkūle‘a, Furuto and the rest of the crew stopped at various islands and ports to visit schools and leaders to discuss ethnomathematics and the importance of preserving environments and cultures. Furuto has participated in discussions with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, “Her Deepness” Sylvia Earle at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York City.

Furuto had an especially memorable experience while visiting American Samoa. After a presentation at a local elementary school, a young student stood up and, speaking in the local language, said, “Thank you for teaching us what’s not written in our textbooks.”

“Thank you so very much to your ancestors who had the courage to sail from the navigator islands of Samoa to Hawai‘i,” [I responded.] “It’s because of you that we are here, and it’s because of you that we are able to travel around the world.”

Furuto told the BYU audience, “The common denominator of our work is the children.  They remind us why we do the things we do.  As it says on the back beam of Hōkūle‘a, ‘Kapu Nā Keiki’ or hold sacred the children.

Furuto’s focus on ethnomathematics helps her students—across the world and back in Hawai‘i—see the connection between mathematics, history, language, and culture. As an apprentice navigator on the Hōkūle‘a, Furuto used mathematical calculations based on the position of the moon and stars to guide the canoe to its next destination.

“At the intersection of historical traditions, linguistics, and sociocultural roots—among others—ethnomathematics encourages the investigations and adaptations of these concepts both within and outside of the classroom,” Furuto said.  “We strive to help educators discover pathways that foster student engagement through multiple approaches to learning STEM.  A strong component is finding relevance in real-world applications through physical, environmental, cultural, and spiritual capacities.”

But the reason why she has chosen this unique career path is to make a difference in the world.

“One of the ways the Lord would have us walk in His light is by developing our potential through service and servant leadership. If we will faithfully accept the call, hidden talents will be discovered such as kindness, compassion, and being a good friend, teacher, and leader,” Furuto said.

In her role as a teacher, she serves her students by helping them advance their careers in the field of STEM education.  Beginning fall 2018, Furuto and her team will be starting a new academic program in ethnomathematics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for STEM educators.

“We believe that the betterment of humanity is inherently possible and we believe our schools, from early childhood education through advanced graduate studies, are a powerful force for good,” Furuto said. “We strive to increase content and pedagogical knowledge aligned with national and state standards, prepare teachers as leaders to provide instruction about ethnomathematics in STEM in their schools and communities, and strengthen sustainable campus community networks to support college, career, and community readiness.”

Most importantly, Furuto strives to follow Christ.

“As we spiritually prepare to follow the invitations of Christ and we have the courage to serve and be servant leaders, more and more blessings will come our way,” Furuto said. “I am so grateful for my education at BYU. I am so grateful that it has not only given me a blueprint of how to live this life, but it’s given me an eternal perspective and a sail plan to understand what Heavenly Father sees in each and every one of us.”