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Doing the math: COVID-19 and social inequity

COVID-19 cells superimposed on numbers and charts
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They say necessity is the mother of invention. Faced with the disruption that is COVID-19, professors everywhere have put their virtual heads together to craft ways to tackle new topics and learning environments. And thanks to the Associated Colleges of the South and their Rapid Summer Grants for Advancing Pandemic Pedagogies, professors at Furman University, University of Richmond, Rollins College and Trinity University have created a new online workshop, “Mathematics & Data Science Resources to Support Socially Relevant Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.”

The live webinar describing the modules available in the workshop takes place Thursday, Aug. 6, 2-3:30 p.m. EDT.

The workshop is the latest among nearly a dozen resources on the ACS website that explore topics like teaching languages, ensuring academic integrity, and the nuts and bolts of delivering a blended learning space, for example.

But this workshop has a social justice twist, say Furman mathematics professors Casey Hawthorne and Grace Stadnyk.

“I think mathematics offers a lens for really understanding social events and social inequities. Right now, in South Carolina, the number of COVID-19 cases per capita is 2.5 times greater in persons of color versus white people – it’s so disproportional,” Hawthorne said.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information floating around about COVID-19, and a lot of things are being brushed under the rug. I feel like it’s our responsibility as professors to highlight those things, explain the underlying data and help students understand how we are coming to those conclusions,” Stadnyk said.

For both Hawthorne and Stadnyk, offering these tools is a way to make mathematics and other disciplines more relevant to students since everyone is touched in some way by COVID-19.

Hawthorne said, “Often we present mathematical concepts without context, and a lot of students may not identify with it. So, when you present mathematics within a context everyone is experiencing right now, it makes it real and expands the scope of who sees themselves as a mathematician and who is able to engage in mathematics.”

But both professors agree the workshop and its resources reach well beyond mathematics.

“When we initially went into this project, our focus was how the modules and materials would be used in math classes,” Stadnyk said. “But working on this project really highlighted the fact that all these data and health questions are so interdisciplinary. These materials can be used to facilitate discussions in a political science, biology or health sciences classroom.”

Or perhaps communication studies.

Hawthorne and Stadnyk describe one module, which is centered around COVID-19 testing and how that data is presented to consumers. The teaching aid culminates in a task where students use publicly available data to craft three press releases about COVID-19 testing efficacy from three different points of view. The exercise underscores how data can be viewed differently depending on how testing data is defined, how it’s collected and interpreted, the desired agenda and who’s delivering the numbers.

For the 90-minute webinar – a trailer of sorts – Hawthorne and Stadnyk say there’s so much available – reams of data, assignments, rubrics, instructional guides. Their hope is that professors, both ACS and beyond, will tune in to see what modules might work best in their classes for engaging students in new, socially-relevant conversations.

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