Math 131             Survey – Math for Social Justice           Spring 2012


Professor:      Dave Kung

Office:            175 Schaefer Hall, x4433 or 240-895-4433


TA:                 Jennifer Kunze (

Texts:             Common Sense Mathematics by Maura Mast & Ethan Bolker (free online at


                        Proofiness by Charles Seife

Office Hours:                           Tuesday       9:00-9:50

                                                Wednesday  2:00-3:00

                                                Friday          1:00-2:00                     

In this section of Survey we will use mathematics to better understand justice, fairness, and equality.  Then we will use that new knowledge to improve the world.

Mathematics will be used to explore issues of social, political and economic justice.  We’ll use the power of mathematics as an essential analytic tool in understanding justice issues in our community and in the world. The overarching goal of this course is for you to develop the ability and inclination to use mathematics to understand, and improve, the world around you.


Topics will vary depending on your interests and on how quickly we move, but if no mold infests our buildings we will probably cover these:


Quantitative Literacy. What does it mean to be quantitatively literate? What should people know in order to be responsible citizens in a democracy?


Numbers: How do we interpret numbers in the media and in everyday life? How do we make sense of astronomically large or infinitesimally small numbers?


Estimation: How (and why!) can we use basic ideas of arithmetic to answer interesting questions about the world?


Conversions, Percentages & Inflation:  Converting from one unit to another (e.g. currencies), using percentages, and calculating inflation are all different forms of multiplication. How do we use these techniques get used (and abused) in the news?


Statistics: How do we use statistics to translate data into a story? How can statistics be manipulated into spinning a particular story?


Distribution: The Occupy movement has brought the ideas of income and wealth distributions back into the public’s consciousness. How can we use mathematics to understand the equal (or unequal) distribution of anything that is valued?


Probability: How do we understand random events? How is probability used to manipulate us?


Financial Math:  Last year the global economy almost ground to a halt because of some fancy financial instruments (based on complicated mathematics.) Underlying all financial systems are ideas of interest, compound interest, and inflation. What is the mathematics behind basic financial tools such as credit cards, home mortgages, and investments?


Voting Methods: In many cases, the result of a vote depends on what type of voting method a group uses. We will discuss various types of voting, including Borda, Condorcet, Instant Runoff Voting and others. 



Reading the News: Part of quantitative literacy is being able to critically interpret numbers and mathematics in the news media. Each week, you’ll be asked to report on numbers or mathematics contained in an article you’ve read related to an issue of social justice. You’ll also be asked to respond to someone else’s report. These assignments will be completed online using Blackboard discussion forums.


Projects:  As advertised, a main focus of this course is on actually making the world around us a better, more just place. We will work to enact justice through a semester-long project.


Early in the semester you will be required to write up a proposal for a project that aims to change the world in a small but important way. In a single page, you should layout the basic issue you hope to address, how mathematics will be needed to understand and address it, what your initial plan of attack is, and what you hope to accomplish this semester on your issue. In class, you will have an opportunity to pitch your idea to the class, with the goal of attracting other students to your cause.


After everyone has pitched their ideas, we will vote and divide into 8-10 groups, each tackling one proposal, or a combination of several closely related proposals. The project will last the rest of the semester as you work to study the issue, understand it better using mathematics, and work toward change. You will be asked to report to the class periodically on your progress.


As for the scope of the projects, this is largely up to you. Change might happen in small amounts on a large scale, or in larger increments on a smaller scale. You might choose to raise awareness of an issue with an educational campaign. Many different types of projects will be valued. You must, however, directly work on the issue involved (that is, simply raising money for a charity will not be considered as an appropriate project.)


Participation: After class (and by the end of the day), an assignment for the following class will be posted on Blackboard. You are expected to complete the assigned work and come to class prepared to contribute. Full points for participation will be given to those who are full participants in class – who are well prepared, attend class nearly every time, and work productively in class with your classmates.


Homework: Homework assignments will come in different shapes and sizes, including problems drawn from the textbook, short writing assignments, reflections on the reading, etc. You will always have at least a day and a half to complete these assignments. Thanks for reading the syllabus completely. Wear a hat to class on Thursday, January 19th to indicate that you have read this.




Your course grade will be determined by:


Attendance & Participation


Midterm Exam (March 8th, in class)




Reading the News


Project Proposals




Final Exam (Monday, May 7th, 6pm)




Student Conduct:  Violations of Student Code of Conduct, such as copying, plagiarizing, and faking data will not be tolerated.  This is a course about justice; violating these basic tenets of academic honesty is a violation of my trust and that of your classmates. The rules are clear, and the consequences stiff (and by the book – namely the Student Code of Conduct.)


Course Accommodations: It is my goal to make sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed in this class. If you have a documented disability or any condition that requires additional support or accommodation, please discuss this with me in the first two weeks of the semester. You may also wish to contact the Office of Academic Services in Glendening Hall at x4388.