In this episode, teacher Mele Sato explains how she got her students excited about the somewhat dry-sounding subject of alternative voting methods by using math to challenge their strongly-held, but mostly-unexamined convictions about what it means for something to be “fair” or “unfair”.
You can learn more about the Electioneering Project here.
[THEME MUSIC] From High Tech High in the California Department of Education, this is the Project Essentials podcast. I’m your host, Alec Patton. This is episode two of our two-part series about Mele Sato’s 12th grade math project, the Electioneering Project. The Electioneering Project is all about politics, but it’s not about who to vote for. It’s about how voting actually happens, and that means three things. How do you cast your vote? How are votes tallied? And what are the boundaries of the district you vote in?
In episode one we talked about hoe Mele’s students studied the boundaries of their congressional districts, and in some cases, redrew them to make them better. This episode is all about voting, and I know what some of you are thinking– that the Electioneering Project sounds like politics with all the interesting stuff taken out. There’s no chance to argue about hot-button issues, no dressing up like a political candidate to stage a mock debate, no learning about what the political parties stand for. But here’s the thing– when you take all that out, everyone can see what they’re looking at much more clearly. This really hit home for me when I asked Mele about how her students identify themselves politically.
What’s the sort of ideological spectrum of your students that are coming in as far as, I am a Republican.
I don’t know. So this is an interesting question that comes up every year and I don’t know how I managed to do it, but we don’t talk politics in the most general sense that most people would think, hey, you’re doing an electioneering project, you’re talking about if your vote matters or not, how are you not talking about politics? We’re trying to look at the election process through a mathematical lens. And that lens, by definition, is trying to be unbiased. It’s trying to be objective. It’s trying to change how we measure fairness.
Fairness. That’s the magic word in this episode. If you spend any time with teenagers you know how deeply invested they are in the concept of fairness. And that’s what’s so clever about designing a politics project that isn’t about politics. Politics is, to put it mildly, not a universal interest among teenagers. In fact, I’ve lost count of the number of students who told me– unsolicited– how much they hate it when politics come up in class. But I’ve never met a high schooler who didn’t jump at the chance to give their opinion on whether something was fair or unfair.
Of course most of us, whatever our age, aren’t great at judging fairness objectively. But that’s where math comes to the rescue.
I think most people approach, “is this fair?” in general life with a very subjective lens. They have a sense of themselves– if this is fair or not– based on their values. In a mathematics classroom, all of a sudden in addition to their own set of values, they’re bringing in actual measurements of fairness, and how does that play in? And so listening to students trying to grapple with, “What the numbers say– it is fair but I feel like it’s not,” Was interesting to have them bring into the conversation.
Mele’s students got into the profound weirdness of election math right away because the project started, appropriately enough, with an election.
I think it’s important to launch a project with experience. And with that, it was about experiencing different ways of voting, taking the results of an election, applying different voting systems to it, and seeing that a different person would win in every voting system. They were like, wait, what? That also brought some buy-in, some, “That’s not fair.” I heard that over and over again with the kids. Like, “that’s not fair. Same results, you just change the way you’re counting. And all of a sudden, somebody else wins. Who decides how we count?”
It turns out that there’s a paradox here. When it comes to voting, you can measure fairness mathematically but you can’t achieve it. At least, not according to the Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow, who in 1951 proposed what’s now known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. Let me explain– and in this bit, you’re also going to hear the voice of Randy [? Scheer, ?] director of the PBA Leadership Academy.
Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem has proven mathematically that this set of voting criteria is impossible to meet. All of them. It’s impossible to meet all of them.
What’s that upper range? Or that there is a set?
There is a set, about 15 different voting criteria. It’s the majority criterion, the condorcet criterion, and a bunch of different– certain things like if x moves up or if x is preferred over y, And then this group. But x is taken out of the race, A still wins or something like that. It’s different comparisons of candidates that need to be met and different voting systems meet these different criteria. And so as the students are creating their own voting criteria in a group, they’re trying to decide which one is more important. Which one is the most fair? And I don’t think there– I mean, maybe there is a right answer. I don’t know. But they couldn’t determine if there was a right answer. I think that’s the beauty of that.
Mele’s students weren’t about to let the negativity of some Nobel Prize-winning economist get in their way. So for their final product, they designed their own voting systems to improve on what we’re all stuck with right now. Well, some of them did. The others redistricted San Diego to make congressional elections more fair.
There was a shared product amongst all groups that was like a need to know about voting systems that already exist. And then there was a choice product, that was create a new voting system or redistrict San Diego County. Some students chose to redistrict and then some students for the project chose to create their own voting system. They really bought into that idea. “If these voting systems aren’t fair, let me create one that seems to be more fair, that meets more voting criteria.”
And that’s what we exhibited at our exhibition. And so students were able to engage their parents, community members, other students, in explaining why their redistricting was more compact. Why it was more fair. And then why their voting system was better than another voting system. Why it was more fair. So I think that conversation about fairness was still present, but it changed based on the products they created.
So there was a new conversation happening and the students were able to engage in a conversation of fairness in a different way than they did before the products.
Thanks so much for listening to the Project Essentials podcast. You can learn more about the Electioneering Project and a bunch of other awesome projects at hthgsc.edu/unboxed/pbl_kits. Or just look up Unboxed on the High Tech website. That’s probably simpler. Project Essentials is a production of High Tech High and the California Department of Education. I’m your host, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother [? Herschel. ?] Special thanks to Mela Soto for taking the time to talk to us about her project and for Randy Scheer, whose voice you may have noticed ask Mela about Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. So long.