Flexing those math muscles

Quick! Name a profession that doesn’t require quantitative literacy.

Trick question. There isn’t one.

Quantitative literacy – the ability to use elementary math tools to interpret and manipulate data and ideas.

According to Kimberly Vincent, clinical assistant professor of mathematics, naming a profession that doesn’t require quantitative reasoning is as impossible as naming one that doesn’t require verbal reasoning.

“It’s not just doing math,” Vincent said. “It’s thinking about what it means. It’s a habit of mind.”

In fact, the ability to use quantitative and symbolic reasoning is one of the Six Learning Goals of the Baccalaureate that were articulated by the President’s Teaching Academy and then approved by the Faculty Senate in April 2005.

Vincent and colleague Carolyn Smith began working in 2005 to lay the groundwork for a quantitative literacy program similar to WSU’s Writing Across the Curriculum. A handful of faculty members – including Beth Buyserie in English and Carol Anelli in entomology – attended a week-long workshop and created quantitative literacy projects to embed in their course curricula.

Math skills recalled
Anelli, whose Entomology 150 is a Tier 1 general education course, said she always taught quantitative literacy, along with the other learning goals, but the workshop encouraged her to do more.

“I use insects only as a means to get them to think about other things,” she said, so with coaching from Vincent she beefed up a section of her course involving revised USDA food guidelines.

After looking at how insects fit into dietary requirements in other parts of the world, students looked at their own diets. In one project they calculated how many calories they typically consume, determined their energy expenditure, looked at the guidelines and then calculated how much they would have to increase or decrease their food intake to be in line with the Recommended Daily Amounts.

Students realized they weren’t eating as well as they should, Anelli said. “They also realized there were math-type problems that they had forgotten how to do.”

Need surprises students
Thomas Rotolo, associate professor and co-director of graduate studies in the sociology department, also took the workshop, even though he was a math major before he became a sociologist and teaches the introduction to statistics class for sociology majors.

“It was sort of preaching to the choir for me,” he said, but the workshop has inspired him to include more quantitative literacy in other classes. Students are often surprised, and disappointed, to learn that they need to understand numbers and symbolic reasoning to be sociologists, he said, particularly if they plan to attend graduate school.

“With students, I use the analogy of a math muscle,” he said. “It’s painful if you haven’t used it in a while.”

Faculty interest welcome
Vincent, who is chair-elect of the quantitative literacy special interest subgroup for the Mathematical Association of America, said the quantitative literacy movement is gaining momentum across the country, at both the college and K-12 levels.

Many of the leaders in the field are private, liberal arts colleges, including Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. But Vincent said large public research universities also are taking note.

Vincent’s exploratory work, including bringing speakers to campus and organizing the summer workshop, was funded by an Undergraduate Teaching and Learning Improvement Initiative Grant from the Office of Undergraduate Education.

Now, she said, she is trying to gauge if there is institutional support for a campus-wide emphasis on quantitative literacy across the curriculum. In the meantime, Vincent and Smith, a senior instructor in the math department, are happy to talk with faculty who want suggestions for how to develop quantitative literacy in their courses.

“We’re here to help,” Smith said. “We just want folks to recognize the importance of bringing math into their curriculum.”

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