Q&A: Dr. Heather Johnson on How Our Feelings About Math Shape Our Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Heather Johnson in her Yinz is a Gender Neutral Pronoun shirt from our friends at Etna Print Circus

Keeping distance from people on a day to day basis is new. I understand how long 6 feet is. It’s different from getting a feel for what keeping a 6 feet distance means. To keep our distance, we have to pay attention to people around us. It adds one more thing in a time when everyone is dealing with so much.

There are times when you need to rely on your friends to help you navigate a pandemic. Fortunately for me, I have some good friends from high school – including one who is a Ph.D mathematician and one who is a MD physician. They are also good friends with one another. Pretty handy when plague sweeps the land. I’m sure I have other high school friends with great insight into pandemics – feel free to reach out to me. Let’s help one another.

Dr. Johnson – or Heather as I know her – is super smart and really engaging on Twitter. We had math together in high school for four years (Algebra II, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus) and I’m quite fortunate that she continues to educate me on math topics. As I’ve been trying to educate myself on the pandemic and lift up the Pgh masQue ProjecT, I realize how important math can be to help us understand this horrible experience (and the world.)

So we had a chat about the role of math in a pandemic.

Your Name: Dr. Heather Lynn Johnson
Your Pronouns: she/her/hers
Your Math Credentials: BS in Mathematics and PhD in Curriculum and Instruction (Math Education Emphasis) from Penn State University

How do you describe your identity? I am a white, cisgender, hetero woman. I grew up in a predominately white, working class community in a borough southeast of downtown Pittsburgh.

Science gets the glory, but math is equally important to public health. Yes or no? As a math education researcher, I study how people make sense of change and variation. I listen to students to learn more about their thinking. And I engage with teachers and departments to transform algebra instruction. We need to help people feel like math is something by them and for them. That’s important for public health.

How can math help us make sense and survive this pandemic, both on macro and micro levels? With COVID-19, every day is a series of risk assessments. On a micro level, math can help us to make informed decisions. For example, say we want to have a few friends over for a backyard cookout. How can we determine risks? One risk is how many other people our friends have been in contact with. We are thinking mathematically when we consider that risk. On a macro level, math can help us to make sense of trends. One trend we’ve heard about is “flattening the curve.” A graph of the number of daily cases vs. time will “flatten” if the cases stop getting bigger from day to day.

I recently read this “COVID-19 has brought calculus, statistics and probability theory into our daily lives.” Please explain the distinction between the three. 

When we study calculus, we investigate change and variation. With calculus, people can make sense of rates of change in cases.

When we study statistics, we investigate measures of center and spread. With statistics, people can interpret and question data that they see reported in the media.

When we study probability, we investigate the likelihood of events. With probability, people can make and understand risk assessments.

I’ve noticed that some folks will not acknowledge the mathematical realities of the pandemic. For example, they believe the US has more cases because we are the largest nation in the world in terms of population. That is not true, but it is often cited to refute the reality of new infections. How do you explain this literal rejection of the data? And how do we respond? Beliefs are powerful. When numbers are just numbers, they can feel less real. It’s hard to feel the weight of all of the cases, because they keep happening over time. Right now, it’s more than half a football stadium’s worth of people per day. I appreciate the news outlets that are reporting on the lives of the humans who have died. We’re losing far too many people.

My partner and I are often doing a risk assessment of our probable exposure. If she has to go into her office and be around people, if we both have an in-person doctor’s appointment, etc, we factor that into the optional decisions like spending socially distant time with friends and family. It can be overwhelming to constantly be calculating these probabilities, but I guess it is working because neither of us is sick. Is this an actual application of math? You are thinking with probability! And making smart decisions based on your risk assessments.


When math gets too separate from humans, it can be cold and cruel. For example, as of September 19th, the 14 day change rate in new cases is -1%. A decrease in new cases is good, but a closer look shows that there were nearly 42,000 new cases on September 19. Forty two thousand people is a lot. They would fill more than half of the seats at Heinz field.


You and I had basically the same math courses in high school. Given the time period, did those classes prepare us to use math in our adult lives?  We have a lot of systemic work to do when it comes to math teaching and learning. Math is a powerful tool to make sense of the world around us. Too often, people feel like math is something done to them, something outside their daily life. To prepare people to use math in their adult life, we need to bring out the humanity in it.

Another math concept we struggle with is 6-foot-distances. Is it a failure to assess distance or resistance to the concept itself?  Keeping distance from people on a day to day basis is new. I understand how long 6 feet is. It’s different from getting a feel for what keeping a 6 feet distance means. To keep our distance, we have to pay attention to people around us. It adds one more thing in a time when everyone is dealing with so much.

I keep thinking that the typical high school students of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are unprepared for the academic rigors of this pandemic and emotionally unable to grapple with what we don’t understand. They aren’t dumb, but they are afraid of looking dumb. Is the way students are taught now different? I like how you bring emotions into the discussion. Math isn’t just something we think about, it’s also something we feel. Change is happening, but change is slow. A big problem now is too much standardized testing. They take too much learning time away from teachers and students.

Can you explain in mathematical terms how face masks work? There are face masks that protect others from ourselves (cloth masks) and face masks that protect ourselves from others (medical grade N95 masks). A cloth mask helps to stop droplets from our nose and mouth from spreading into the air. A medical grade N95 mask filters out air particles when we breathe in, which protects the wearer.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-mask/art-20485449

A person wearing a cloth face mask spreads fewer droplets into the air. Fewer droplets reduces the risk of spread.

A new CDC study states Coronavirus Patients Twice As Likely To Have Eaten In Restaurants Before Getting Ill. Is this the same thing as a person who visits a restaurant being twice as likely to get ill as someone who does not visit restaurants? Why or why not? It’s related, but not the same. The researchers found a correlation. That’s different from causation. I think back on the before times, when we watched football in person. People at Steeler games are more likely to wear Steeler gear. This doesn’t mean that wearing Steeler gear will make you more likely to score game tickets!

Are you a fan of converting to the metric system?  The metric system makes sense. It’s easier to go back and forth between measurements like kilometers, meters, and centimeters, because they are all multiples of 10. I would have learning to do to get a feel for it in my daily life.

Obviously, one serious issue is the challenge parents face of helping their kids keep up with mathematics coursework. As a parent yourself, do you have advice for parents who are struggling with this particular task?
Build from what our children know. Rather than trying to fix students’ math, ask them questions about their work. It’s hard when our children are using strategies that are different from what we learned. For many people, math can feel like a place where the only thing that matters is to find answers. Math is so much more than that.

The youcubed website from Dr. Jo Boaler is a great resource: https://www.youcubed.org/

You have been known to Tweet “Math isn’t just “for” everyone. Math belongs to everyone.” Please explain. 
Math is a human creation. This means that each and every person is a math person. I tweeted about this in July: When I hear math being “for” everyone, I wonder what is the “math” that “everyone” gets. When math belongs to everyone, each and every person has agency in shaping what math is.

 

What hope and comfort does math offer as we endure this pandemic?  I like how you offer “hope and comfort” in the same sentence as math. It’s important to remember the COVID-19 numbers and rates represent humans. When math gets too separate from humans, it can be cold and cruel. For example, as of September 19th, the 14 day change rate in new cases is -1%. A decrease in new cases is good, but a closer look shows that there were nearly 42,000 new cases on September 19. Forty two thousand people is a lot. They would fill more than half of the seats at Heinz field. It can be hard to feel the gravity of that if we don’t know people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Math or Maths? Both are a shortened version of mathematics. Which you use depends on where you live. In the US and Canada, you’ll hear “math,” In the UK, Ireland, and Australia, you’ll hear “maths.”

Read more about Math v Maths.

Anything else you’d like to add? Thank you for the opportunity!

Thank you, Dr. Johnson.


I like that Heather uses accessible imagery to help us visualize the data – such as how many seats of Heinz Field represent that data. Opening ourselves to the vast data actually helps us focus on the individual human beings whose lives are impacted each day.

Follow Dr. Johnson on Twitter at @HthrLynnJ

Speaking of MATH – I have to put in a plug for the Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT crowdfund because we currently have a 100% match through the Elsie Hillman Foundation.

You donate $5, we get $10. $10 buys masks for one recipient. There’s also the excitement of momentum. When people see our total inching upward, they chip in a few more $$.

I can’t say this is Dr. Heather Johnson approved BUT I do know she believes in face masks and supporting LGBTQIA folks.

You do the math!

 

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