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Illustration by Victoria Borges
What the numbers say
Students are learning how mathematics can shed light on economic and social issues.

Quiz time: The syllabus raises issues like inequality, imprisonment rates, and the environment. Name the class.

Didn’t guess mathematics? You’re not alone. But you’re probably also not at Richmond, where the math faculty have begun introducing social equity concepts into the curriculum after a workshop last summer on how to do so effectively.

“As our University strategic plan is rolling out, it calls for us to teach our students social responsibility,” math professor Kathy Hoke said.  “In math, we tend to think that they don’t mean us when we’re talking about these types of social issues, but this conference helped me realize that they do mean us.”

What does the idea look like in practice? This fall, Hoke’s calculus students looked at the effect of Airbnb, which started in San Francisco, on eviction practices in that city; Hoke also tied the assignment to this year’s One Book, One Richmond selection, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, which students could read and discuss with her for extra credit.

Professor Joanna Wares’ calculus students calculated the Gini index of income inequality for three countries over time and interpreted the data based on graphic representation of it.

“It’s taking real data and applying it, and students really like doing that,” Hoke said.

“Math is in a great position to look at these issues because we are broad-based,” Wares said. “You can support your opinion on a topic with facts. Math gives you tools for developing those ideas; it’s another way of thinking critically about a complicated issue.”