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Research Communications

Problem Solved: How math literacy can improve quality of life 

By Taylor Evans

Before studying math education at Ohio University, Daniel Showalter spent five years teaching and backpacking all over the world. On one trip, he witnessed something that sparked his passion for using math to help people.

Showalter was working in a remote area of India when he saw moneylenders take advantage of a tribe. After the lenders convinced the tribe to purchase clothing in local markets, they demanded to be refunded with interest. The tribe owed the lenders four times more than what they borrowed and wound up doing hard, physical labor to pay them back.

Daniel Showalter (Photo credit: Rob Hardin)

The moment served as turning point for Showalter, as he felt that the tribe could have benefited from a greater understanding of consumer mathematics.  He's now involved in various research, scholarship, and teaching projects that strive to improve quality of life through math education. A lack of understanding of math can impact people in many common life situations, he says, such as successfully earning a GED, understanding bank interest rates, or running a business.

"Learning math can remove these obstacles," he says. "In a more positive light, math is a powerful tool that can help illuminate hidden injustices, make sense of patterns around us, and organize problems efficiently."

Showalter is interested in place-based education, which puts learning in the context and culture of a community. When teaching his statistics class at Ohio Valley University in Parkersburg, West Virginia, he creates lessons based on student ideas and interests to help make math more relevant to their everyday lives. For example, Showalter used a student's idea that required classmates to write down acquaintances' names that started with "F" in order to understand statistical probability. Such lessons also help build a sense of community, he says.

"I want my students to always feel like they can come to class and whatever they're carrying in their hearts is something we can make meaning of and make sense of in discussions," Showalter says.

For more than a year, Showalter also has worked at the Stevens Literacy Center, which helps adult students develop their reading and math literacy. The program serves students across Ohio and has a variety of participants that include prisoners and senior citizens. Although Showalter trains the instructors and doesn't directly work with the adult learners himself, he helps write the curriculum. He was able to use his work on an unrelated project about diabetes and apply it to a lesson in probability at the literacy center.

"For me, the real heart of the lesson was for them to learn to read a diabetes risk tool and make connections between lifestyle choices and risk," Showalter says. "And of course, learn the necessary probability skills along the way."

His influence in the classroom expands far beyond teaching. Showalter is currently working on co-authoring a mathematics textbook for seniors in high school.

"When I write my story problems, it's not just a matter of starting with a math problem and building a pseudo context around it," Showalter says. "It's starting with problems I've really experienced in life and finding out what kind of math problems are there."

In addition to his teaching and writing, Showalter is developing his dissertation project. He'd like to study a data set compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics that tracked sophomores for ten years. He wants to discover how decisions about their math education and interest in the subject relate to their quality of life as they enter their mid-20s.

"My research interests are so broad," he notes, "that I see the dissertation as one step along the career journey."

Showalter is a doctoral student in the Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education.

This article appears in the special graduate student edition of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine, published in spring 2013.