Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Mathematics Teaching for the Living World

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Mathematics Teaching for the Living World

Article excerpt

If you pay attention to news about the environment, you may be feeling slightly uneasy. Recent stories have highlighted, among other things, increased melting of Antarctic ice, collapsing insect populations in the UK and Europe, the prevalence of plastic particles in every corner of the planet, killer air pollution in major cities, deadly heatwaves, wildfires, flooding and drought. The gravity of these phenomena is almost entirely a result of human activity, with serious consequences for individuals, including disease, hunger, displacement and death. Most of the time, though, they are the subject of vaguely worrying background news reports, while daily life for teachers, children and other citizens continues at its usual frantic pace. Perhaps you are already losing interest? What is the relevance for mathematics teachers? Of course, these are important and sometimes contentious issues, but they do not really intersect with school mathematics, right?

One response is to say that, as mathematics teachers, we should stay out of environmental politics. Our job is to teach children how to do mathematics; how to think like mathematicians. We should not get involved with controversial topics like climate change. It is just too political and we cannot take sides. I do not agree with this position. In this article, I will explain why. I will begin with an example.

A recently published scientific report with the banal sounding title, The biomass distribution on Earth (Bar-On et al., 2018) was covered by the Guardian newspaper's Damian Carrington, who helpfully summarised one of the key findings relating to the relative mass of different classes of living organism:

The world's 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds. (The Guardian, 21 May 2018)

There is a lot of mathematics in these two short sentences. I invite you to stop and think about them for a moment. Based on this statement, are humans a significant part of life on Earth or not? It turns out that, by mass, viruses take up more space than humans. The majority of biomass is in the form of plants (82%), followed by bacteria (13%). Humans make up a minuscule part of planetary biomass. The report also finds, however, that humans have had a huge impact on the make-up of this biomass. For example, over 80%, by mass, of wild mammals have been lost since human civilisation, in the form of organised agriculture, began, as well as 50% of wild plants. It sounds alarming, but what is my point? Well, as George Monbiot wrote a few years ago with reference to climate change, "You cannot understand the world's most important issue without grappling with some numbers" (The Guardian, 1 May 2007). Mathematics is used to describe environmental problems, make projections of possible future developments, and communicate this work. Our students will be tomorrow's citizens and they will need to grapple with a lot of numbers in the face of the multiple environmental crises that are unfolding around us. Our role is to prepare them.

So, what could mathematics teaching for the environment focus on? For this article, I discuss three ways in which mathematics is implicated in environmental issues and propose three mathematical topics that future citizens need to understand.

Mathematics and the environment

Mathematics, or the culture of mathematics, contains features that can be problematic in thinking about environmental issues. Among other things, mathematics can be dehumanising, denaturising and give an illusion of control.

Mathematics can be dehumanising in the way it is used to describe, model and predict processes in our ecosystem. Human activity is present in models used to predict future climate change, for example, in the form of carefully worked out scenarios about likely greenhouse gas emissions. …

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