Part 3 – Science and Math
As activist Leslie Mac said, “Being anti-racist is a verb—and it requires consistent action.” This story is part three of a five-part series exploring the ways in which Nueva is striving to be anti-racist in the classroom. To read Part 1–Identity, click here. To read Part 2–Literature, click here.
Close to 20 percent of California community college students are homeless. This fact was the starting off point for a social justice project in Danielle McReynolds-Dell’s upper school Applied Statistics and Probabilities course last year. Students reviewed decades of California housing data to tell a story about the housing situation in the state.
The idea for this project came when Danielle and fellow Nueva math teacher Veena Krishnan attended a professional development opportunity one summer through the Silicon Valley Math Initiative and were brainstorming ways to incorporate social justice issues into the math they were teaching.
“Sometimes in math, students miss the forest in the trees,” Danielle said. “I wanted students to be able to see the stories that data is trying to tell us. Last fall, there were a number of news articles about issues around homelessness. We read articles and journals about gentrification and urban development, and we discussed who was writing the article, what position they were taking, and what the graphs of data say about the issue.”
Then, using California housing data spanning every month and every county’s median home price from 1996 through 2019, students told stories. They answered the questions, “What does the data tell you about an area, and thus about income and jobs in that area?” and “Why might someone live in one area and commute for over an hour each way to a job in another area?”
“This project was designed to demonstrate economic inequalities, which in turn speaks to racial inequalities,” Danielle added.
Examining data, as students in Danielle’s class did, is another tangible way for students to understand and talk about racial and social justice issues. Through middle and upper school science courses, students engage in projects designed to show them that there is no data to suggest a connection between genetics and race.
“The Equity and Inclusion Institute really opened my eyes to the ways I could bring more antiracism into my classroom,” said Dalton Lobo Dias, middle school physics teacher and sixth-grade dean. “During our DIY unit in the spring, we’re going to talk about how science has been misused to promote racist ideas. We’re going to pull apart these pseudoscience ideas, and identify the fallacies in eugenics.”
In Luke De’s upper school neuroscience courses, he teaches the physical underpinnings of implicit bias so that students can understand racism at the mechanistic level. Implicit bias, he said, is rooted in anxiety, and when conversations around race make people uncomfortable or angry, the anxiety system in the brain is activated. He hopes that by exploring the neuroscience of implicit bias, students gain “new empathy so we don’t make assumptions about people’s behavior based off of stereotypes.”
“I want my students to learn that from a mechanistic level, the best way to approach conversations around race is through kindness and empathy, because it doesn’t provoke the anxiety system in our brains,” Luke said.
The upper school Journal Club, which aims to create a culture of scientific inquiry at Nueva, also strives to have science-based conversations about racism and social justice. The club hosts Science Thursdays, weekly presentations about current or controversial research designed to educate with data-backed ideas and make science accessible to everyone.
“We had a presentation on the translation of systemic racism in artificial intelligence,” Luke explained. “When a person creates an AI tool, the bias of the creator lives in that piece of AI. We also had a presentation of the classification of credit scores based on race: that while race cannot be used to determine one’s credit score, there are many proxies for race, namely area code.”
In the middle school math program, teachers follow the same philosophy as Journal Club: to use data to simplify high-level mathematics research. In seventh- and eighth-grade math, students explore data for a culminating project in which they research a social justice issue and use data to support their claim. Every other year, seventh- and eighth-graders explore the theme of commodities across subject areas. In chemistry, they look at a commodity—say, a natural element or a chemical compound—and in humanities they explore how that same commodity is used in different parts of the world. In math, students select a social justice research question about their commodity that can be answered using data.
“In the past, students always had the option to select a social justice topic,” math teacher Anna Blinstein explained. “This summer, we spent time thinking about this and other projects and decided to have all students select a social justice topic.”
For example, she said, “Students might choose to look at the use of their commodity over time and its impact on the environment. Or, they might choose to investigate workers’ rights around who mines their commodity and the wages workers are paid compared to living expenses of that region of the world.”
It was clear to Anna that this project really struck a chord with her students.
“As citizens of the world, we have some knowledge that poor labor conditions exist,” she shared. “But, the specificity of the data helped students see trends over time and understand that as demand from Western culture increases, labor conditions in other parts of the world change. The data made it much more powerful.
“We want our students to see that math is a tool that is connected to the world, and that sometimes that connection can be missing,” Anna added. “We don’t want Nueva students to leave Nueva thinking that math is just abstract and theoretical. Math at its best can be used to promote social change and promote values associated with social change.”
In Part 4, we explore the ways in which Nueva humanities and history teachers are helping to reshape the narrative of the history of the United States.