PSU professor studies knowledge transfer among Bengali boat-builders

In a visit to her native country, India, PSU Professor Swapna Mukhopadhyay observed workmen on a beach building large ocean-worthy vessels with simple tools and no blueprints. She wondered how they were able to construct 60-foot sophisticated boats with very little equipment or formal education. The centuries-old transfer of this kind of knowledge is termed “vernacular engineering,” and Dr. Mukhopadhyay wanted to better understand this process.

She has recently been awarded a Senior Fellowship for six months by the American Institute of Indian Studies for the 2011-12 academic year. She will be working on a project titled Vernacular Engineering of Boat Builders in the Bay of Bengal. The pilot study (titled Alternative forms of knowledge: Studying Vernacular Engineering in India) is supported by PSU’s Faculty Enhancement Grant.

Her observations will focus on boat-builders in the fishing village of Frasergunj, West Bengal. As a native speaker she will be able to closely observe and interview her subjects about their processes for apprenticeship, knowledge transfer, and teaching methods. This interdisciplinary field study will focus on the intersection of anthropology, cognitive psychology, and mathematics. She also hopes to consolidate relationships with a number of Indian institutions to facilitate future partnerships for PSU.

Dr. Mukhopadhyay, who teaches in the Graduate Teacher Education Program (GTEP), researches and teaches mathematical methods used by nonwestern cultures. She and her husband Brian Greer are authors of numerous books and articles about culture and mathematics.

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