A few weeks back I came across Parable of the Polygons, a “playable post” from Vi Hart and Nicky Case. I’ve been pretty entranced by it since. This post uses simple, interactive cellular automata to demonstrate how preferences in each individual can affect the entire system. This is a metaphor, and a model, for how even slight individual biases can lead to segregation at the societal level.

The beauty of Hart and Case’s work is in it’s simplicity. Using a simple model, they are able to articulate something that can be quite difficult to explain succinctly in words. It takes ideas from sociology and social justice theory and makes them tangible. Users can literally interact with these concepts.

The post pushes beyond just how segregation forms to show what is needed to bring about integration. Since our society is already segregated, even if we were able to completely eliminate bias, the segregation would remain, would be static. There needs to be an additional force, a desire for diversity to actively move members of society to interact and mix together.

I’m fascinated by this post for the possibilities it presents for how I might incorporate social justice into my math classroom and curriculum. There is so much math present in this work. This is applied patterns. Fractions and proportions are used to describe the cell preferences. There are algorithms and functions at work. I am excited to incorporate Parable of the Polygons into my classroom and to consider the possibilities it inspires.

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I think you’re totally right about the possibilities it has for social justice in the math classroom. Its limitations could also be a fruitful mathematical discussion to have as a class. The discussion could even touch on the limitations of the different sciences – math, social science, etc – to describe our world. There’s lots of venues for this topic and lots of ways for it to pan out. Very cool tool.

Oh, that’s a good idea; use it to talk about limitations of not just models, but whole fields of study. Neat.