Math for Social Justice Brings Numbers to Life

Mathematics professor David Kung has implemented a service project in his Survey of Mathematics class meant to promote activism in the community through the use of mathematics.

“There’s a lot of activism on campus, and I wanted to harness that energy and get people to learn some mathematics while trying to be activists,” said Kung. Kung’s survey project coincides with his specific survey class, which is entitled Math for Social Justice.

Kung hopes that this project will help the students in his class do three things, be less intimidated by math, utilize math to achieve social change, and learn to be more active in their communities. “I hope they are more critical consumers of mathematics and the media, and I hope they are able to use mathematics to promote social justice,” said Kung.

Before students began the project, Professor Kung shared a proposal that he had created several years ago that would give the students some ideas and give them an idea of what steps they should be taken when implementing a project of this nature.

Students had to complete several steps before they could officially begin working on their project. “Each student had to propose a project. Thirty-two projects were proposed, we’re only doing eight. [Students had] to explain an issue, say how they wanted to address issue, explore mathematics, needed to understand the issue, and talk about the impact that project would have,” said Kung.

One of the groups in the class has built their project around the idea of senior Shane Hall. According to sophomore Monica Powell, a member of this group, the premise of the project is to “get solar energy panels on the dorms which would save a bunch of money in a short time.” Senior Katie Ryan, also a member of this group, says that Shane Hall was inspired by the Sustainability Committee.

This group has been attending Student Government Association (SGA) meetings, discussing their plans with people in the university, and looking at other universities who have implemented similar projects. “We went to an SGA meeting and listened to the sustainability fellows, and they are the ones who convinced us that it would be more realistic to get solar panels on the dorm rather than the ARC (Athletics and Recreations Center), which was the original idea,” said Powell.

Thus far, the group has had hardly any problems with the project. “The hardest part about this is coordinating our ideas with the College’s agenda; right now the school is cutting back on funding and doesn’t really want to hear about new projects,” said Ryan.

Overall the problem with most groups seems to be remembering to add a math component to their project. “A lot of us keep forgetting that there’s a math component for the project. He [Professor Kung] keeps gently reminding us that we need math,” said Powell.

Kung’s hope that these projects will help promote activism among his students seems to be taking effect. “I really just want to do something that helps the St. Mary’s community,” said Powell, “Personally, I probably won’t be around to see this [the project] put into effect, but I like that I helped get the ball rolling.”

A Sample MFSJ Problem:
A hospital administrator claimed that over the past year, 90% of the patients who have spent a night in the hospital checked out within a week.  The nurses were incredulous – they knew that at any time, 80% of the patients had been in the hospital for longer than a year! How is this possible?  (Similar statistics hold for the homeless, people on welfare, and those without health insurance.)
-Submitted by Dave Kung

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