Mathematics Teaching for the Living World

By Barwell, Richard | Mathematics Teaching, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Mathematics Teaching for the Living World


Barwell, Richard, Mathematics Teaching


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Mathematics Teaching for the Living World
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.