Can mathematicians help to solve social-justice problems?

Can mathematicians help to solve social-justice problems?

Rachel Crowell writes:

When Carrie Diaz Eaton trained as a mathematician, they didn’t expect their career to involve social-justice research. Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, Diaz Eaton first saw social justice in action when their father, who’s from Peru, helped other Spanish-speaking immigrants to settle in the United States.

But it would be decades before Diaz Eaton would forge a professional path to use their mathematical expertise to study social-justice issues. Eventually, after years of moving around for education and training, that journey brought them back to Providence, where they collaborated with the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council on projects focused on preserving the local environment of the river’s drainage basin, and bolstering resources for the surrounding, often underserved communities.

By “thinking like a mathematician” and leaning on data analysis, data science and visualization skills, they found that their expertise was needed in surprising ways, says Diaz Eaton, who is now executive director of the Institute for a Racially Just, Inclusive, and Open STEM Education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

For example, the council identified a need to help local people to better connect with community resources. “Even though health care and education don’t seem to fall under the purview of a watershed council, these are all interrelated issues,” Diaz Eaton says. Air pollution can contribute to asthma attacks, for example. In one project, Diaz Eaton and their collaborators built a quiz to help community members to choose the right health-care option, depending on the nature of their illness or injury, immigration status and health-insurance coverage.

“One of the things that makes us mathematicians, is our skills in logic and the questioning of assumptions”, and creating that quiz “was an example of logic at play”, requiring a logic map of cases and all of the possible branches of decision-making to make an effective quiz, they say.

Maths might seem an unlikely bedfellow for social-justice research. But applying the rigour of the field is turning out to be a promising approach for identifying, and sometimes even implementing, fruitful solutions for social problems. [Continue reading…]

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