#Eventmath: a math educators community resource for lessons paired with news articles and social media posts
“But the next thought I had really stopped me cold. I thought, ‘That’s the thinking we need to do in order to understand our national dialogue.’ I had not once, in more than a decade, taught a single student to do that thinking. I taught over a thousand students mathematics. This was the math they needed to be responsible citizens. And it’s not in our college curriculum. It’s not in the K-12 curriculum.
Jefferson knew that we needed an informed electorate to sustain our democratic republic. And part of that is mathematical knowledge. Where are we giving our students the math that they need to be informed citizens?”
That’s a quote from the beginning of a TedX talk by Dave Kung, Professor of Mathematics at St. Mary’s College. As Director of the MAA’s Project NExT, Dr. Kung has advised early-career college teachers. He also won a 2006 Teaching Award from the MD/VA/DC Section of the MAA. And here he is in this presentation talking about how, for a long time, he was failing students. (My words, not his.)
I first watched this video in December 2020, at the end of a semester during which I taught a “math for liberal arts” course for college students majoring in humanities. It’s a course I’ve taught for several years now, and I’m always tinkering with the subject matter and course design to make it better. But this video made me really wonder about how effective I have been at giving students the mathematical knowledge – and, moreover, confidence in that knowledge – that they need to make informed decisions in the modern world.
I tweeted about that video and how it made me question my teaching practices and course design. And that tweet sparked a conversation and some questions, including:
- Does there exist a living resource of examples that map important real world topics and current events to the standard mathematics curriculum?
- Where are these kinds of examples found, and how can we make it easier for instructors to find and use them in their classes?
Link to relevant Twitter thread:
This was the genesis of #Eventmath, an online repository of mathematics lessons based on current events, news articles, and social media posts. There are a few guiding principles of this project:
- Students of all ages need to practice mathematical thinking in context. They want examples that are relevant and important to their lives, not contrived “real world” exercises in a textbook.
- Dedicated math educators are already finding and sharing interesting examples that require mathematical thinking. For instance:
- However, it is challenging for instructors to do this on their own, to keep finding good examples to use in their classes. Even after finding a good example of a news article or social media post to use, it can be hard work to craft a lesson plan around that example and to create meaningful assignments for students.
- Some textbooks aim to teach quantitative literacy, numeracy, and mathematical thinking. For instance:
- My Tweet above quotes the “Calling Bullshit” account which also has a book.
- Dave Kung mentions the Common Sense Mathematics text from the MAA Press.
- Alas, those texts are inherently static resources. Furthermore, not all instructors have the resources and/or freedom to choose such texts, and not all students have the ability to pay for such texts.
- Therefore, it would be wonderful to have a resource that accomplishes the follow things:
- Has lesson plans and assignments based on current news articles and social media posts, as well as relevant math curriculum content.
- Is open and freely available to all instructors: anyone can find, use, and contribute to such a resource.
- Is open and freely available to all students: the news articles and posts on which the lessons are based are not behind paywalls.
After looking around online, we found that no website currently accomplishes all of those goals. So, we want to build one! It started as a shared Google Doc, where Greg (@HigherMathNotes) and I worked on fleshing out two lesson plans:
One lesson plan is based on an activity I’ve done in that “math for liberal arts course” where we read an article from the Huffington Post that makes a claim about “voting power” in the Electoral College. We gather census data in a spreadsheet, perform calculations to quantify “voting power”, and then discuss the main claims of the article. This is the kind of numeracy and mathematical thinking that Dave Kung described in his video as what we students need to be informed citizens. But it’s also something that I developed over several semesters, tweaking the lesson, creating assignments and resources. Now, all of that information is described in the Google Doc, including a link to a spreadsheet with all the necessary data, so that an instructor does not have to reinvent this wheel. There are also links to relevant websites and YouTube videos about the mathematical content (proportional reasoning) and the “real world” content (how the Electoral College works).
The other lesson plan is based on a recent semi-viral Tweet that purported to show that Germany’s COVID-19 deaths are somehow comparable to the USA’s. I encountered this Tweet in my feed when I saw several people commenting about Riemann sums and calculus. Greg made this into a lesson that could fit in a precalculus or calculus course. It asks students to grapple with what the original Tweet is implying, to question how one might confirm or refute that claim, and then to use calculus-based reasoning and graphing to investigate further.
Okay, at this point, I hope I’ve convinced you of the usefulness and importance of having such a resource. You might also be thinking: “Wouldn’t a Wiki site make the most sense here? That way, members of the math educators community can find the site, consult the resources there, use them in their classes, and then edit the resources and make suggestions, based on their classroom experiences.” To which I would say: Exactly! Now, here’s you can help with that …
We want to build the infrastructure for such a Wiki site, and we’ve applied for grant funding from the Wikimedia Foundation to do exactly that. Our grant proposal describes the vision for this resource that I have shared here, as well as how we will work to initially build the portal and teach people how to contribute to it. Importantly, we are proposing to create the infrastructure, not the entire site. The whole point of using a Wiki is so that this will be a living resource, sustained and updated by the math educators community. We don’t claim to be the arbiters of what makes for good content, and we certainly won’t be creating all that content. Rather, we hope to start building a place that all math educators can use, support, and develop over time.
We need endorsements and feedback on the proposal. From now until March 4th, grant proposals are in Community review. The goal is for members of the relevant community (that’s you, math educators!) to comment on the proposal (which is a Wiki site, of course) so that the grant reviewers understand how beneficial this project would be for the community and whether it could be a self-sustaining resource in the long term.
Please go to the proposal site and look for the endorse and join buttons below the main info box. Click “endorse” if you’d like to add a supportive comment for the grant reviewers to see. (You can scroll to the bottom of the page to see an ongoing list of such endorsements.) Click “join” if you’d also like to add your name as an interested volunteer who would contribute this resource during and after its creation. Both of these types of support are helpful at this stage!
If you are able and interested, we would also appreciate constructive feedback on the proposal so that we can make changes before the next stage of the process. You can click the “Discussion” tab to open the “Talk Page” for the site and add your comments there for us to see.
We appreciate any guidance, support, and suggestions you might have. Thanks for reading.
Brendan W. Sullivan [@professorbrenda]