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Quantifying Social Justice

Throughout trimester one, calculus students worked on a project that utilized mathematic calculations to explore topics of social justice. Twenty-six students in Mathematics Department Chair Julie Sheldon’s two calculus sections used math as a means to investigate issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Topic selections included US hate crimes; income inequality by gender, race and class; mass incarceration; injustice in the criminal justice system; maternal and infant mortality rates; educational opportunities; the school to prison pipeline; juvenile detention rates/who is incarcerated; and the opioid epidemic.

Students worked with partners to find a line graph that illustrated their issues, determined if their graph was continuous or discontinuous, examined its slope, composed and answered limit questions, and identified any key values (intercepts, relative extrema, and intersections, etc.). Students then interpreted this data based on the real-world context and predicted what would happen on the graph up to the year 2022. The students then used their newly acquired knowledge about their respective topics as a lens to view the issue locally.

Sheldon designed this project to echo the School’s mission and diversity statement, which calls for an educational program that recognizes and values many peoples and perspectives, and to show students how mathematics can be used as a method to explain social phenomenon.

“The idea came out of a few places,” explains Sheldon. “As I sat in student lunch discussions last year, students talked about the importance of having diversity, equity and inclusion work in the curriculum, and not just as workshops and assemblies. I also heard my colleagues in the Social Studies department talk about how difficult it was for them to take on the load of trying to do all the education themselves. Then this summer I attended Diversity Directions, a national program for independent schools to discuss issues surrounding diversity, and I realized that I had the tools to put these initiatives into my curriculum, and that it was important to all our students. Additionally, our Dana mission statement and diversity statement talks about preparing our young woman for the choices and challenges they will face, and all of them will be faced with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in college and the workplace.”

Sheldon hopes this project would encourage students to use calculus as a real-world tool to examine social and culture issues.

“I want our students to be able to look at data more critically and through the lens of calculus to see that math can be used in the real world to help see patterns, to explain phenomenon, and to predict future events. I want students to get a better sense of how some of these prejudices and disparities have arrived over our history, so they aren't repeated and so we can find solutions.”

Sheldon was impressed with the students’ work. “The projects were incredibly thoughtful and well done. Each student told me that they learned a great deal and by doing the presentations, they were able to share what they learned with others.”

The students created posters of their findings that are displayed in the Upper School Classroom Building.

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