Blond female teacher, smiling at students in classroom, gestures at equations on blackboard
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Faculty Develop New Calculus Course for Social Science Majors

Data increasingly drives research and policy on a broad array of pressing global issues, including climate change, misinformation in social media, and the future of the social safety net in our aging society. A new mathematics course in the works at UC Davis will help to prepare the next generation of social scientists to analyze and use data in mathematical models.

With the help of a state-funded grant, faculty in the mathematics, economics and psychology departments are developing Math 19: “Calculus for Data-Driven Applications.”

The three-quarter course sequence will blend calculus, probability, discrete mathematics, computer programming and mathematical modeling, and will include weekly computer labs giving students opportunities to analyze real data sets.

Widening student access

Currently, many UC Davis social science majors take Math 16, a yearlong calculus series. “Math 16 is a traditional calculus course taught in a traditional manner,” mathematics professor Tim Lewis said. “Math 16 falls short in preparing students for careers in an increasingly data-driven world."

In a grant proposal to the California Education Learning Lab, Lewis and colleagues also stated that many underrepresented minority, first-generation and economically disadvantaged students struggle to master Math 16.

To help close that achievement gap, the Learning Lab awarded the UC Davis team $100,000 in June to develop the new data-focused calculus course. The Learning Lab was created by the Legislature and governor in 2018 to improve learning outcomes and close equity gaps in STEM and other disciplines at California public colleges and universities.

Addressing real-world problems

The new course aims to help more students succeed by showing them how calculus — the mathematical study of rates of change — is relevant to their majors. “Instead of standalone functions on the board to memorize out of context, students will be manipulating data and deepening their understanding of the practical applications in parallel with the foundational math,” said Janine Wilson, an associate professor of teaching economics.

“Many students in math classes continually ask, ‘When will I ever use this?’ When these students see how math can be used to address real-world problems, attitudes change and performances improve! Research shows that this is particularly the case for students from underserved regions.” — Tim Lewis, professor of mathematics

Multidisciplinary team effort

The state grant will include partial summer salary to three lecturers and two graduate students to develop the course labs and create a lab manual, which will be free to students through the online textbook platform LibreTexts.

Math 19 will be offered in the 2023-24 academic year. In the meantime, undergraduates can pursue the lab lessons in 2022-23 by taking the first-year seminar, “Mathematical Models and Data-Driven Applications in Social Sciences.”

The effort to develop the new calculus course brings together several faculty leaders in improving undergraduate learning:

  • Mathematics professor Lewis, who as a vice chair in his department oversees undergraduate mathematics programs.
  • Marco Molinaro, who recently retired as assistant vice provost for educational effectiveness.
  • Jesús De Loera, a professor of mathematics, who first drafted the curriculum for the new course.
  • Two associate professors of teaching — Wilson in the Department of Economics and Victoria Cross in the Department of Psychology.
  • Three mathematics lecturers — Korana Burke, Rohit Thomas and Edward Tavernetti.

This “timely and immensely helpful collaboration” will give more students access to a “state-of-the-art math toolkit” for answering social science questions, Wilson said.

“With greater math intuition, our economics and other social science majors will arrive in their upper-division classes ready to learn economics,” she said. “We are so grateful for the vision of the faculty in the math department and their desire to engage in what is a great service to the broader college and university.”

A wide swath of students could benefit. Nearly 9% of undergraduates are pursuing a degree in psychology, the campus’s most popular major, while 6% are majoring in economics.

Cross said she anticipates social science students will learn more calculus — and learn it more deeply — by exploring how it applies to their fields. “I think that they will be better prepared to apply this knowledge and these data skills to their other courses, to research labs as undergraduate research assistants, and to their careers.”

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science


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