The "M" In STEM When it Comes to Social Issues is Alive and Well

Posted by
John Zobitz
October 12, 2014

The recent BISE blog post Where's the "M" in STEM When it Comes to Social Issues? generated some discussion on social media. Dr. John Zobitz submitted this response on behalf of the Engaging Mathematics initiative at the National Center for Science & Civic Engagement. Read on to learn how Engaging Mathematics is developing strategies for engaging the public in math in the context for social issues, and the opportunities for informal learning institutions to participate in this sphere.

Top image courtesy of the Engaging Mathematics website.

The Engaging Mathematics initiative couldn’t agree more with the issues presented in "Where is the ‘M’ in STEM When it Comes to Social Issues?”. The problems we face as a society typically involve complex systems with multiple stakeholders, and, often, competing objective functions. These complex problems can be better understood through mathematics. For example, computer-based modeling can be crucial in addressing climate change, with its temporal and spatial scales. Solving the problem of low national numeracy and quantitative literacy is an important first step toward solving our larger social issues.

Quantitative literacy, numeracy, and mathematical modeling are key tools for a citizen to be empowered and engaged in democratic society. This idea is not new, and we can point to organized, concerted efforts to address this:

  • The special interest group on Quantitative Literacy of the Mathematical Association of America (SIGMAA-QL)
  • COMAP, a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), that uses mathematical modeling to explore real-world problems
  • Project INTERMATH, an interdisciplinary COMAP effort that “demonstrates the interdependence of mathematics and science”


This list is not exhaustive, and many individual mathematics faculty members incorporate mathematics and social issues in their classrooms. Beyond these national organizations and efforts, one very current project is ours, Engaging Mathematics: Creating a National Community of Practice, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Engaging Mathematics is a multi-year project involving many different types of higher education institutions, namely community colleges, public universities, private colleges, non-profit organizations, and international collaborators.

Engaging Mathematics is envisioned as a strategy and program to make mathematics relevant to students’ lives, to connect mathematics learning to the goals and interests that students bring to college, and to show how mathematics relates to other disciplines, important civic questions, and technological challenges.

The approaches utilized in this project highlight the depth, breadth, and commitment to mathematics and civic engagement. Some of these approaches include the following:

  • Refocusing a general education liberal arts mathematics course on issues of groundwater and public health;
  • Partnering local community organizations with students in an introductory statistics course so students can apply their statistical knowledge to help answer questions for the community organization; and
  • Applying calculus concepts to inform the decision-making and investment strategies for a rural Nicaraguan coffee cooperative, with additional examples available on the project website.


The issues investigated in these mathematics courses are real, complex, and do not have a simple solution. In all of these cases it is quite common to hear the cry that “because you are focusing on civic issue ‘X’, you can’t teach the mathematics concept ‘Y’.” We respond that because we are focusing on “X”, students have a deeper, richer contextual context to develop an enduring understanding of “Y”. Preliminary results on assessment and attrition rates support our claim. Focusing on social and civic issues with mathematics broadens access and participation in the subject.

While the Engaging Mathematics project focuses on integration of social issues with post secondary mathematics curriculum, our hope and core belief is that it will provide a lasting impact beyond the classroom. We recognize that many students take only one mathematics course in their college education. Focusing on numeracy, quantitative literacy, or mathematical modeling with social issues can empower students and provide context for them to be engaged citizens. To quote Robert Orrill in his introduction to Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy, page xviii:

…numeracy does not so much lead upward in an ascending pursuit of abstraction as it moves outward toward an ever richer engagement with life’s diverse contexts and situations.

In addition to quantitative literacy, we would also add mathematical modeling to Orrill’s statement. In essence, understanding and experiencing mathematics in social issues is the very messy work of citizenship and democracy building. These skills are so needed in today's society to deal with complex problems, think across boundaries, and provide opportunities to consensually forge a common solution.

As we continue the work of the Engaging Mathematics initiative, we search for new avenues of collaboration or dissemination with museums and other informal science organizations. Collectively our common work broadens the number of projects that couple mathematics with social issues. We welcome the participation of museums in addressing social issues grounded in mathematics.


Special thanks to CAISE for the opportunity to respond to the article, Christine DeCarlo and Frank Wattenberg for helpful comments, and partners and colleagues of the Engaging Mathematics Initiative.

Sources Cited:

Steen, L.A. (Ed.), 2001. Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy. Woodrow Wilson Natl Foundation, Princeton, N.J.