‘An opportunity to reset’
The gathering grew out of an ongoing collaboration between Boaler and Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of the best-selling Freakonomics books, which apply data science to a variety of topics in contemporary culture. The pair recently co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that called for putting data science at the center of high school mathematics.
Levitt, a father of four teenagers, became interested in the issue when he saw the mismatch between his own experience of mathematics and what his kids were learning. They came to see math as “voodoo,” said Levitt, who cofounded the nonprofit Center for Radical Innovation for Social Change (RISC) at the University of Chicago. “They were taught by teachers that these sets of things work, without any real understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
Data science, on the other hand, is “literally the expression of what is happening in the world,” he said. It lets students become “the discoverers of knowledge, as opposed to the recipients of the brilliance of past generations dumping knowledge upon them, with the hope that somehow it will stick.”
Boaler and Levitt convened the summit for participants to explore questions about the challenges of incorporating data science education into K-12 schools. Where could it fit into existing curriculum? What type of professional development would be most useful to prepare classroom teachers for this shift? How can schools ensure that students of all genders, race and economic background have equal access to the classes?
“When we think about computer science or math, the images that most people have in their heads are not of women, they’re not of people of color,” said participant Elena Grewal, PhD ’12, former head of data science at Airbnb. “This is an opportunity to reset. How can we ensure that everyone is included in this new field and feels like they can master these concepts?”
A more equitable pathway
Citing research demonstrating racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to advanced math courses in U.S. high schools, Boaler said that data science could offer a more equitable pathway.
“Calculus sits on this whole system of tracking and racial inequalities,” she said. “Calculus is the only AP class where you need to be advanced in middle school in order to get there.” When students are in sixth grade, it’s decided whether they should be able to go on to calculus, she said. “That is wrong on so many levels. Data science could be different, particularly if we go into this with our eyes open.”