Solving more than equations

November 18, 2016
Incorporating social justice issues in the math classroom

Philosophy, sociology, and political sciences classes regularly examine social equity issues and discuss solutions for solving them. At Richmond, those discussions are happening in one unexpected place: the math classroom.

Four math faculty members attended a workshop sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the South last summer that focused on introducing social justice concepts into the mathematics curriculum. Over two days, the group looked at issues like income inequality, imprisonment rates, and the environment, and created relevant equations and word problems to use as examples in calculus and statistics classes.

“Our main goal is to develop materials that faculty could use every day to introduce social justice concepts into the classroom,” said math professor Joanna Wares. But the group was also interested in creating a socially just classroom. “We looked at how we promote justice in our classrooms through the power balance between teacher and student, and the way we build community in the classroom,” said math professor Kathy Hoke.

The experience was eye-opening. “As our University strategic plan is rolling out, it calls for us to teach our students social responsibility,” said Hoke. “In math, we tend to think that they don’t mean us when we’re talking about these types of social issues, but this conference helped me realize that they do mean us."

What does the idea look like in practice? This fall, Hoke’s calculus students looked at the effect of Airbnb, which started in San Francisco, on affordable housing and eviction practices in that city. Hoke also tied the assignment to this year’s One Book, One Richmond selection, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, which students could read and discuss with her for extra credit.

Wares’s calculus students measured income inequality over time by calculating the GINI Index of three different countries, and then drew conclusions based on graphic representation of the data.

Both professors report that students enjoyed the assignments. “It’s taking real data and applying it,” said Hoke, “and students really like doing that.”

Hoke and Wares, along with a group of colleagues from universities around the country, are coming together to share their lesson plans widely within their field and encourage others to incorporate social justice issues into their math curriculum. “While some schools are already doing this work, it isn’t widespread,” said Hoke. The group’s curriculum materials will be featured in a special issue of the math journal PRIMUS, and the workshop attendees will come together at the Joint Mathematics Meetings early next year, where Hoke and other colleagues will present on the topic.

“Math is in a great position to look at these issues because we are broad-based,” said Wares. “You can support your opinion on a topic with facts. Math gives you tools for developing those ideas; it’s another way of thinking critically about a complicated issue.”