Magazine Perspective

It Adds Up

The mathematics of social justice and a diverse STEM community

By Linda McGuire

Winter 2024

I don’t see how math and social justice have anything to do with each other. How do algebraic gymnastics help communities?”

“Mathematics’ dedication to abstraction takes the human out of the equation (pun intended), and I can’t think of a more human-centered topic than social justice.”

Comments like these emerge on day one of my Mathematics for Social Justice course at Muhlenberg College as I invite students to describe why they signed up for the class. Most responses reflect a desire to understand how mathematical concepts can be applied to solving societal challenges.

This course is just one of our Mathematics, Computer Science, and Statistics (MCS) Department’s initiatives on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). Sensitive to student apprehension about MCS content, our faculty are especially attentive to student experience and how social forces combine in ways that can exclude people of marginalized identities from our field. This can be a difficult realization for academics, as our subjects are broadly perceived to be inherently objective and fair.

MCS and other STEM departments face particular challenges to implementing DEIB initiatives. Course content demands, often specified by accrediting organizations, limit class time for DEIB-related conversations. Many non-STEM majors avoid our courses altogether or exit them long before they see themselves as possible contributors to our disciplines. Most STEM faculty have no formal training in this area, and many prefer focusing on scientific work over engaging with fraught social content or analyzing faults in our disciplines.

That said, DEIB initiatives can open exciting avenues of scholarship and collaboration for STEM departments. An MCS department, in particular, is well positioned to introduce students to analytical techniques that will allow graduates to become agents of social change in such areas as health care, the environment, criminal justice, and educational access.

Class conversations go byond the binaries of “good and bad” and consider how human assumptions, perceptions, and biases affect system design.

Our department’s DEIB efforts began during the remote learning phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. A voluntary faculty learning community met twice a month on Zoom, with participants taking turns to identify readings and pose discussion questions. We analyzed current research-based DEIB literature, such as Sherria D. Taylor and colleagues’ article “The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy.”

Nearly all twelve department faculty continue to take part in the learning community. We share our efforts to support student success, such as including a diverse set of authors in course readings; implementing hands-on activities designed to promote a growth mindset; constructing lower-stakes assignments like participating in discussion boards; formalizing the use of peer review through in-class writing workshops; and building draft stages into larger projects.

We’ve also worked to make students aware of national organizations that can further support their academic work. Some of these are Girls Who Code, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, Mathematically Gifted and Black, Lathisms (Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences), SACNAS (Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), and Women in STEM.

“I recently joined the Comunidad [culturally based professional] group on campus because I read about them in the Lathisms display!” one student commented on a course evaluation.

In addition, our department sets up displays in our hallways and offices to highlight different MCS professionals, including as part of larger celebrations of National Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month.

“I enjoy browsing through the hallway displays,” another student wrote on an evaluation. “They show a diverse array of STEM professionals in interesting careers I knew nothing about.”

As we planned our DEIB work, we asked: if a student takes only one course from our department in their entire undergraduate career, what experience do we want them to have? Pondering this question, and getting input from a student advisory group we created to help us examine the topic, led us to develop new introductory-level courses that satisfy the reasoning requirement for graduation.

Mathematics for Social Justice was one of these new courses. It focuses on technical topics such as algorithmic bias, income inequality, environmental models, voting theory and districting, and communication and transportation networks. I use readings, podcasts, and videos from the popular media to inform class discussions. For example, Cathy O’Neil’s Guardian article “How Algorithms Rule Our Working Lives” has inspired lively class discussions about biases in employment algorithms used in hiring processes. The topic also sets the stage for a lesson on how machine instructions are written and the logical limitations of algorithms. Such mathematical work informs examinations of charged topics such as predictive policing algorithms and biases in facial recognition software. These examinations lead to philosophical class conversations that go beyond the binaries of “good and bad” and consider how human assumptions, perceptions, and biases affect system design. Finally, students report on organizations engaged in work related to the topic, such as the Algorithmic Justice League.

Putting together this kind of course experience is challenging. Classroom resources on these MCS and social justice themes are just starting to be curated, and students who do not have some, if not substantial, background in calculus and statistics may struggle to analyze quantitative frameworks for complex social issues. To help students become citizens who can engage with technical information, I focus on the basic logical structure and operation of mathematical models deployed in real contexts. As a result, students often report having a positive experience understanding the quantitative material in the course. I cannot overemphasize the confidence boost that comes with such success. As one student commented on an evaluation: “This course gave me the confidence to sign up for statistical analysis next semester so I can learn enough to really understand and contribute to environmental justice.”

Another strategy to boost student success is to schedule time in the course for topics students want to explore. I leave approximately one-third of the syllabus open for student-suggested topics, which have included reproductive rights, environmental legislation, and newborn safe havens and adoption centers.

To continue our DEIB efforts, our department formed a committee composed of four faculty members from each discipline in the department to spearhead initiatives such as writing our DEIB mission statement and making visible the DEIB work of our MCS students. For example, a group of students collaborates with the college’s Office of Community Engagement to regularly offer hands-on modules in math and science for students at a local, under-resourced middle school. Other students helped create an auction website for an LGBTQ+ community center to use during its yearly charity gala.

A DEIB associate serves as a researcher, consultant, and support staff member for the DEIB committee. For this undergraduate work-study position, we usually hire a student who is not affiliated with our department. This way, we bring in someone with perspectives different from those of most MCS-devotees. Ideally, the associate has some background in social justice work and adds distinctive skills and strengths to the department. The current associate is helping us expand our community outreach work by acting as a liaison between the MCS department, campus affinity groups, and contacts those groups have in the local community.

As these ideas suggest, DEIB work asks faculty, staff, and students to meet on a level playing field and share responsibility for effecting change. This common cause is rebuilding our department community after years of unnatural disconnect brought about by the pandemic. We are not experts in this work, but we are committed students. Most important, the DEIB initiatives help students develop technical and interpersonal skills and prepare them to contribute to an increasingly complicated society.

Photo: Linda McGuire with her math students (Ryan Hulvat/Muhlenberg College)


  • Linda McGuire

    Linda McGuire

    Linda McGuire is the Truman Koehler Professor of Mathematics at Muhlenberg College.