5th Grade Math Challenge Raises Questions About Social Justice, Equity and Fairness

In February, Middle School math teacher Joshua Bookin’s 5th grade math class watched the film Hidden Figures in honor of Black History Month, which tells the story of an African American mathematician working at NASA in the South in 1961. Afterwards, Mr. Bookin reinforced the movie’s themes of inequality and social justice by teaching a simple lesson on the advantage of resources:

“In class, students were asked to find the area of a circle (something they have not yet been taught). One group received a cup (whose opening was the circle they were measuring), a string, a ruler, and a whiteboard with π x r² on it. Two groups received the same materials, as well as a calculator, and the whiteboard with A= π x r². The final group had all of those tools mentioned, as well as a computer. Their whiteboard read: Area =  π x r². 

Thus, the three groups were leveled with different access to knowledge and resources (much like the stratification of our society). 

For ten minutes, the groups were isolated, yet promised “fame” of getting their names on the hallway bulletin board if they solved the problem first. Then, the groups were given five minutes to share their resources with each other. Those with the computer were at first defensive of their advantage, though some eventually decided to share. 

We then debriefed the experience, connecting our activity to the experience of the main character in Hidden Figures. We addressed questions such as “Do we have a responsibility to collaborate and support those who have less access to knowledge and resources than us?” And “How did it feel when you saw others using technology to solve problems that you could not solve with what you had?”