Math in the world?

Or the world through math?

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Hello MTBoS! I’ve been lurking around for a long time (9 years or so!) without ever really joining the conversation. I have finally decided to join in after some nice encouraging words from Julie Reulbach and Sam Shah’s Virtual Conference on Mathematical Flavors. So, here are some musings about how I’m trying (and not necessarily succeeding) on “moving the needle on what your kids think about the doing of math, or what counts as math, or what math feels like, or who can do math?”

The most common (at least stereotypically) question in math class: “When am I going to use this?” My typical response has been one that I imagine is pretty common among math teachers – “You might not, depending on what you choose to do in life. But we are learning instead how to build connections between ideas, think creatively about problems and solving them, and how to construct logical arguments.” While I truly believe this, I also don’t think it’s the most satisfying answer… So the next step is, of course, looking at some of the cool math that shows up in the world. Some of my students really appreciate this – looking at things like the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio is one place that falls nicely into my Math 1 class and the students really appreciate. And this is great for a lot of students to have an “oh cool” moment, but it doesn’t feel like it really sticks. And for a lot of students, it’s a neat factoid, but it doesn’t touch on the things that they’re passionate about.

So one of my goals for myself has been to find places where, instead of finding cool bits of math in the world, we look at issues that the students care about with a mathematical lens. That’s why the tweet from #TMC18 below really resonated with me.

I don’t think I do this well yet, but there a few lessons I’ve put together that make some progress towards this goal. One of the neat aspects of my school is the various “culture days” that student organizations host. The clubs organize panels of students and/or faculty, guest speakers and other events that take place throughout the day around issues of culture (identity, implicit bias, etc.) and teachers have the option to bring their classes down to see these presentations. I’ve always viewed these as really excellent ways to start important conversations, and I always debrief the presentations the next day in class somehow. But the pressures of curriculum and content are a thing (hooray standardized testing!), so I wanted to bring a math lens to the conversation after the Black Leadership Alliance Club’s (BLAC) day, which fell during my probability unit.

My (math) objective was for student to practice finding conditional probabilities using two-way tables. My other objective was for students to use math as a lens to recognize racial disparity in law enforcement, so I went hunting for some data and put together this worksheet:
(Note: if you have suggestions, criticisms, comments, whatever about this lesson/worksheet, please share in comments below. I would love to make this better! Also, feel free to make a copy and modify/use however in your own classrooms. Here’s the Google Doc Link.)

Students have typically been pretty quick to calculate the probabilities – so the real conversation happens after we’re done and looking at the disparity in the conditional probabilities of the probability. In the discussion time with my class, my goal is to get them thinking about what further questions we can ask based on the observations we’ve made from the data…

I think this makes a start at one of my goals in my class – “moving the needle” a bit on what students view as the applications of math in their lives (in addition to trying to show all of the neat connections and creativity possible with “pure” math for those that, like me, just enjoy the general mathiness of it all!).