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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Mathematics in the Real World: An Epidemiologist

Follow epidemiologist Traci Bethea in her mission to make a positive impact on the health and quality of life of African Americans.

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The Real World videos in the Reading and Writing in the Disciplines course support teachers’ daily efforts to effectively teach students using the Common Core State Standards as benchmarks for success. Through stories of professionals working toward social justice in different disciplines, these videos can serve as a tool for showing students the role that literacy plays in mathematics, science, history, and the English language arts in creating dynamic career paths. When students ask how these core discipline areas are relevant to their lives, this video series presents passionate professionals as career role models who are making a positive difference in the world. From the development of technical, social, and critical thinking skills to the advancement of social justice and community development, the videos will benefit both students’ professional and personal development.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

Concepts from the grades 6–12 standards highlighted in this video include:

  • Statistics and Probability: Recognize a statistical question as one that anticipates variability in the data related to the question and accounts for it in the answers. Describing the nature of the attribute under investigation, including how it was measured and its units of measurement.
  • Understand and evaluate random processes underlying statistical experiments. Understand statistics as a process for making inferences about population parameters based on a random sample from that population.
  • Write, read, and evaluate expressions in which letters stand for numbers.
  • Attend to precise vocabulary.
  • Define, evaluate, and compare functions.

In the Classroom

This video demonstrates the interactive relationship between content knowledge, literacy practices, and social justice action in the workplace. Students often wonder how the work they do at school relates to their own lives and ask questions such as “How is this relevant to my life?” or “How is mathematics used in authentic situations to change the world?” These videos can help students answer these questions and consider the types of careers that will inspire them and perhaps have a positive impact on the world and their community.

Traci Bethea speaks about the importance of mathematics in changing policy and perceptions regarding public health. This video highlights the importance of mathematics in developing quantitative data that will benefit public health. It also shows the work and processes involved in epidemiology and community development. Teachers can show students a variety of ways that mathematics can have a direct impact on people’s lives.

Connections to selected classroom videos (see links below):

  • Writing for Mathematics Understanding, in which students learn how writing improves understanding and how working in groups can improve their academic performance
  • Writing to Deepen Mathematical Understanding, in which students learn the importance of vocabulary, writing to a specific audience, and integrating peer feedback into their work

The Video

This video follows epidemiologist Traci Bethea in her mission to make a positive impact on the health and quality of life of African Americans. This video is a tool that provides teachers with examples of how mathematics can be used in a career to improve people’s lives. Through a series of research studies on a wide array of health issues with a disproportionately negative impact on black women, Bethea uses statistics and comparative data to advocate on behalf of health-care reform. Curricular strands in this episode include reading, writing, literacy, language, communication, critical thinking, mathematics content, literacy practices, and social justice. Relevant core subjects include mathematics, statistics, science, English language arts, and sociology.

Statistics can have a negative impact on the people and communities represented. Communicating through writing what statistics actually reflect is critical to problem solving. Bethea seeks to systematically avoid using mathematical data to marginalize women. “You really need to understand the kind of data you’re looking at, the types of numbers you’re looking at, what they represent, what sort of analytic models you’d use for those types of data. And then, if you use a model and a statistical program, or if you do a computation, what does that number really mean, and what does it tell you? What do you not know from that number?” says Bethea.

From grassroots community building to making attempts at affecting health-care legislation, this video shows how mathematics can impact public policy and affect entire communities. Advanced analytic models and equipment help Bethea and her team compile and assess precise data. “Technology changes everything—not just how we relate to one another, but also how we think. The use of video and other media in education is an integral tool to relating to young people and delivering content/information more aligned to the way people think.”

This video highlights connections between mathematics and literacy instruction by showing the importance of writing in developing abstracts and manuscripts as well as in evidence-based writing. Reading is emphasized through the importance of research, assessment of analytic models, and source verification. Communications skills are shown to be an essential part of processing and presenting data for different audiences, including having an understanding of specialized disciplinary and technical vocabulary.

Suggested questions for viewing the videos with students:

  • What are the reading and writing practices that you see?
  • Who is performing them?
  • Who benefits from the use of those practices in the video?

These questions give students the opportunity to see literacy in a real-world context. They become aware of a diverse array of people using a variety of literacy practices. And they can imagine or speculate about their own potential for creating value in the world through their literacy practices.

Social Justice Education Reference Texts

  • Rethinking Mathematics by Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson
  • Pathologies of Power by Paul Farmer

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4