Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ve always had a passion for teaching. I will sing, dance, get up on desks — anything to help my students learn. I am also a stalwart supporter of social justice movements, educating myself about issues impacting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that I realized the importance of combining these two passions together in the courses that I teach.
Many people think that it is impossible to do diversity work in a mathematics classroom, that it is reserved for the humanities. But I’ve seen what Dana Hall students can do; for them, nothing is impossible. When I started with this concept last year, I didn’t know what to expect. My first project was to have each student, or pair of students, select a set of data about a DEI topic of their choosing. I gave them some examples, including the opioid crisis, mass incarceration, infant mortality rates and hate crimes on campuses. Then each person would look at her data through the lens of calculus each time we reached a new concept. For example, we started the year finding limits, and I built in time during class and in homework for them to find limits at various points throughout history for their data. Later in the term when we studied derivatives, they would find the derivative at various points for the graph of their data. Over the course of the trimester students would learn more about their DEI topics as they had to, for example, come up with conjectures about why the derivative was the greatest at a certain point. They then tied the project to the Dana Hall Inclusion and Diversity Statement and came up with suggestions about how to improve the inequity or educate others on campus. At the end of the term, each student/pair presented their project to the rest of the class.
Even I could not have predicted just how invested students became. Nearly every student went above and beyond the scope of the question, doing rigorous research to try to better understand her data. Some students watched documentaries, others read books, some went to teachers to learn more, but nearly every student yearned to learn more about her topic to better understand her data. As a whole, the students were shocked by what their data showed them about an inequity in our society and wanted to learn more. It was truly humbling to listen to our students discuss these topics with such passion and quest for knowledge. The 5-10 minute assigned presentations often lasted 30 minutes as everyone asked questions of the presenters and each other to better understand these issues.
At the end of the term, we left better educated about calculus and social justice topics. Moreover, many were energized to make a difference, all due to the hard work of these students. To those who say that we can’t combine DEI work and mathematics, I say come and watch our Dana Hall young women shine. To Dana Hall students, nothing is impossible.