Mathematics for the Masses

[Note: this is a post by Ben Thompson, 2017 AMS-AAAS Media Fellow.]

Talithia Williams shared some exclusive clips from her upcoming PBS series, NOVA Wonders, as part of her lecture this morning, “Mathematics for the Masses.” You can find now on YouTube a video featuring Talithia analyzing the feasibility of Santa’s Christmas Eve flight.

In the lecture, she told us she shared the video with her own children when they started doubting the reality of Santa. They decided to reject the null hypothesis (that parents are the true culprits) if presents were still under the tree at home despite the fact that they were away for Christmas. With a last-minute shopping trip made by some helpful neighbors before the Williams’ return, a Type I error was made! While her children still have more to learn about Santa, she was able to start teaching them about hypothesis testing.

After sharing other examples of sharing math with a wider audience, Talithia was joined by Ron Buckmire and James Alvarez on a panel focused on how to make math more accessible. As a department chair, Ron asked professors to identified students who might benefit from or enjoy taking more math classes even if they had never considered it before or weren’t at the top of the class. Over winter break he would mail those students a letter saying their professors enjoyed having them in class and he encouraged them to continue in the discipline. Many of those students came back the next semester for more math classes that they hadn’t been planning to take.

Talithia’s work with PBS came after her popular TED talk (though she reports half of the views on YouTube were from her mother) that introduced people to statistics by showing them how to collect and analyze their own health data.

This morning she suggested analyzing data from a school’s football team as an effective way to interest and engage students. NOVA Wonders will premiere in April. She also has a book coming out that month, Power in Numbers: The Rebel Women of Mathematics.

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