Mathematics Professor Sandra Kingan wanted to help her students better engage with society and speak up on issues that matter to them—using mathematics.

Where Math Meets Social Advocacy

Feb. 15, 2013

Mathematics professor Sandra Kingan

Mathematics professor Sandra Kingan

Sandra Kingan wanted to help her students better engage with society and speak up on issues that matter to them — using mathematics. So she, along with fellow mathematics professor Jeffrey Suzuki, created a new course, with the support of a $193,103 National Science Foundation award.

"One of the objectives of this grant is to develop a curriculum that builds a community of students and faculty who are knowledgeable about mathematics and social advocacy, in the sense that they are able to act as advocates for societal issues they care about," says Kingan, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics.

Mathematical Methods for Analyzing Data, this semester's Special Topics in Mathematics (MATH 2006) enables undergraduate mathematics majors to connect math with some of the most divisive issues in society, including terrorism, surveillance, climate change and gun control.

"There are all these tough, controversial issues," says Kingan. "Not only should we be having these conversations, but let's base the conversations on mathematics. The analysis shouldn't be just clicking buttons in Excel or a statistical software. Let's teach students the mathematics at a deep level and also encourage them to think about the context to which they are applying their techniques. Then, they can be advocates for the issues they care for."

The learning objectives of the course are to master a set of mathematical techniques to analyze data, learn the mathematics underlying the techniques at a deep level to understand how the data drives mathematics, and vice-versa, and to connect mathematics to real-world issues.

Students are required to study a number of advanced topics in linear algebra, discrete mathematics and statistics in order to analyze data sets. One of the challenging aspects of the course involves students working with real-world data sets. In order to reach a sensible conclusion, they must understand the context of the problem.

Kingan believes the course will help students become more employable in a competitive job market.

"Traditional math courses train students to go to graduate school in pure mathematics, but for many of our students, the bachelor's degree is a terminal degree," she says. "My passion is to help math majors graduate, not only with a degree, but also with the skills to get data science jobs and competitive salaries. Our students are bright and probably far more hard-working than many of their peers, and would succeed in a wide variety of quantitative positions, if only they could get a leg in the door."

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