Scholar Combines Math and Social Justice in the Classroom

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by Lydia Lum

Dr. Chawne Kimber is using the little-known discipline of mathematics of social justice to teach Lafayette College students to examine numbers differently. An algebraist, topologist, and associate professor of mathematics, Kimber also grooms the next generation of STEM professionals as director of Lafayette’s six-week Summer Program to Advance Leadership (SPAL), which allows incoming freshmen from underrepresented minority groups to get a jump-start on college life by arriving on campus early. Among other things, SPAL students take college writing and calculus and visit local companies that employ scientists and engineers. Minorities and international students make up about 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively, of the 2,400 students enrolled at the Easton, Pa., college.

DI: Exactly what is mathematics of social justice?

CK: There’s actually mathematics of social justice, as well as mathematics and social justice. Mathematics of social justice relies on notions of equality. We want students to read a newspaper article intelligently and use that knowledge in the article to help others. In math, we want students to use quantitative literacy to help others.

Then there’s mathematics and social justice, in which we incorporate these notions of equality to bring more relevance to a math course. We use the raw skills of quantitative literacy to better interpret the world and to further social justice issues. Instead of building rockets to kill people, we replace math problems about projectiles with math problems about sustainability so we can discover ways to ensure our planet lives longer.

We also can use math as a lens to understand income and equality in ways that aren’t necessarily addressed in sociology classes. If I say that 2 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth, you can’t understand that idea if you don’t know what the percentages mean. Another example involves statistics. Students can better analyze polling data if they learn exactly who was in the sample polled. Was the sample biased? And if so, was it fair and accurate to extrapolate conclusions from the poll?

DI: How have you incorporated such concepts into the classroom?

CK: I wanted students to grasp how common it is for people in poverty to practically be neighbors to the affluent. During my course on ethics, science and technology, the students were trained and supervised in an Internal Revenue Service program to help low-income people in Easton fill out tax returns. It was an intimate look at poverty. They had to treat with dignity and respect a person with five kids earning only $1,000 a month. One nice thing was that, after the course ended, some students continued volunteering in the IRS program.

DI: What led you into social justice?

CK: My Lafayette colleague, Dr. Rob Root, turned me on to it. We’ve each led educator workshops on it. In the one that I co-organized in 2007, we designed course modules and discussed how to add service-learning into classes.

DI: Tell us more about the SPAL students.

CK: We’ve had 18 students in two summers so far. Ten were women; nine were Black or Hispanic. The careers they’re interested in run the gamut: forensic anthropology, veterinary medicine and mechanical engineering to design cars, to name a few. Some came from high schools so low-performing that less than 30 percent of graduates went on to college.

DI: Why did you become a mathematician?

CK: I always loved math. At the University of Florida, I majored in engineering at first. But it wasn’t fulfilling. On the other hand, my math classes allowed lots of creativity. One course was in abstract algebra, meaning it wasn’t concrete. I liked that creativity was part of the science.

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