Using Data to Study Social Issues and Fuel Student Passions

Calculus presentationAnyone 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.

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About Julie Sheldon

Julie Sheldon has been teaching Mathematics since 1991, and at Dana Hall since 1993. At different points in her career she has coached volleyball, basketball, and softball and served as the Mathematics Department Head. She currently teaches mathematics, while also working in the Math Lab.

3 Replies to “Using Data to Study Social Issues and Fuel Student Passions”

  1. I was lucky enough to attend three of Julie’s Calculus classes last trimester as I was invited by students to observe their presentations. Not knowing what to expect from these projects, I was blown away. Not only was I amazed by the way students looked at their topics through a mathematical lens, but I was also impressed with how deeply they delved into their topics. They showed passion, concern, and a deep understanding of the social issues facing our society. Dana Hall students and teachers are a quite remarkable.

  2. Julie,
    Your leadership in the area of integrating DEI work into the mathematics curriculum is deeply appreciated. I have loved hearing your students talk about their data sets, social justice challenges, and the intersection between the two. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for this work with your students and the broader community!

  3. Julie, I love this assignment and your passion for it! Any time we can show students that what they’re learning isn’t “just” about the classroom but about the larger world, that’s a win, and to get them to use their growing calculus skills to deepen their commitment to equity and social justice — well, that’s awesome.

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