Teaching at the Intersection of Mathematics, Social Justice, and COVID-19
Through collaborative ACS grant, Trinity mathematics professor explores the pandemic and its impact on minority populations
Monday, December 7, 2020
Cabral Balreira writes a mathematical equation on a whiteboard

When mathematics professor E. Cabral Balreira engages people in conversation about COVID-19 and minority populations, he starts with the same question: “What difference do you see in these two maps?”

Side-by-side maps show Bexar County data for COVID-19 cases per 100k residents and percentage of Hispanic/Latino residents per zip code. Launch this data as an interactive map.

More often than not, the answer he receives is, “Well, none, really.”

The map on the left shows cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Bexar County, while the map on the right shows the percentage of Hispanic or Latino population in each ZIP code in Bexar County. The maps together, created with data from an Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) research grant, suggest a critical result for Bexar County: “Preliminary data suggests that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts minorities and low-income households,” Balreira said.

With five other professors from across the country, Balreira spent the 2020 summer developing teaching materials to better understand societal COVID-19 impact. Together they created nine teaching modules covering statistics, data science, and introductory mathematics—all to provide students and educators with tools to ask questions about how Covid is impacting minorities in different geographical regions of the US and to quantify how each state is responding to the pandemic.

“Mathematics educators have an ethical responsibility to engage students in meaningful discussions about fairness and equity,” said Balreira, whose research looks at problems in social justice through a mathematical perspective. “This is an opportunity to learn about a topic that is influencing our world. You can look at the local level and look at the new mathematics of it. The effective reproduction rate of the virus is a very important number, and it’s a very difficult mathematical question. It is exciting to have students understand why it is so difficult and why it matters.”

Each of the six researchers (listed below) have extensive experience developing curriculum across all levels of the undergraduate mathematics curriculum. In 2016, Wares and Teymuroglu co-led an ACS-sponsored workshop and subsequently published materials about incorporating social justice ideals into foundational mathematics curricula. Teymuroglu co-led another in which Hawthorne and Balreira participated. Torres and Wares have developed curriculum for University of Richmond’s Integrated Inclusive Science curriculum, and Hawthorne brings expertise in implementing inclusive pedagogy. All six professors’ research focuses on interdisciplinary intersections in biology and social sciences, including infectious disease modeling.

The working group’s goals for the grant included creating mathematical modeling and data science activities, lessons, and projects that address social justice issues related to COVID-19. They have developed individual learning modules for courses across curricula, combining them into a scaffolded portfolio of exercises for use by other ACS faculty to engage classes with authentic and socially relevant material. Through weekly zoom meetings, they shared ideas, assisted each other in developing curricula, and collaborated on creating a cohesive set of examples. Each module examines inequities in COVID-19 impact through a different computational lens.

Balreira was able to integrate the modules into two courses during the Fall 2020 semester: Introduction to Modern Mathematics, where he discussed a Florida case study on COVID-19 cases and ethnicity; and the seminar for biomathematics minors, where students read papers about epidemiological models of the spread of COVID-19 and its effective reproduction rate.

“I hope to get students who are biomathematically minded into this research,” Balreira said. “We are living in a moment where equitable access to health and wellness resources is crucial, and we have the chance to influence local decision-making through open data.”

Participants in the grant included:

Joanna Wares, Associate Professor, Mathematics
University of Richmond

Zeynep Teymuroglu, Associate Professor, Mathematics
Rollins College

Marcella Torres, Director of Mathematical Studies
University of Richmond

E. Cabral Balreira, Professor, Mathematics
Trinity University

Casey Hawthorne, Assistant Professor, Mathematics Education
Furman University

Grace Stadnyk, Assistant Professor, Mathematics
Furman University

The teaching modules resulting from this grant are free and available for download on QUBES, an open education website dedicated to sharing teaching resources.


Sydney Rhodes '23 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern for Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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