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Teena Carroll

Teena Carroll (Mathematics)

November 2009

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Debate on health care reform enriches student experience

You can use math to better understand everyday life and you can use everyday life to understand math. It’s a twin approach that has prompted Teena Carroll (Mathematics) to introduce the health care reform debate to her Survey of Calculus class.

She’s encouraging her students to look critically at the data. “I’m reacting to a New York Times article that said the rate of increase of health care expenses has decreased,” she says. “That is a very complex statement. Calculus is needed just to parse what that sentence says. When the media gives readers a statement that needs calculus we need to make sure that our calculus students know how to interpret it.

“Students hear so much about health reform and data, and I’m trying to put that into context for them. This is not about how people are using the data. It’s about using the data to make your own judgments. We take the politics out of it.”

One of the class exercises is to model out-of-pocket expenses by looking at two different insurance plans. Here are two different plans: which one would you choose? Plan A pays 90 percent of out-of-pocket expenses after a $150 deductible and plan B has no deductible but pays only 80 percent of the cost of any procedure. 

“I’m trying to get the students to start discussions in class, saying, ‘Here’s some data,’ ” says Carroll. “If you break your leg the average cost is going to be $1,500. Now, would you rather have insurance plan A, or insurance plan B with different deductibles and premium levels?”

Carroll has also had students look at the raw data of per-capita health care spending in different countries. For instance, according to the World Bank, in 2002 the United States spent $4,271 per person, as compared to $236 in Mexico and $4 in Ethiopia.    

“The way that Dr. Carroll ties the subject of health care in with her lessons helps me to grasp the concepts that she is teaching” says Alicia Schram ’11, a business major.

“I especially find it beneficial that we are sticking with the same topic (health care) throughout the entire semester, because the consistency helps me understand how certain topics in calculus build upon previous topics.”

Students are getting a very comprehensive look at ways mathematicians talk about functions and data. And, for Carroll, every math class is motivated to its core by real-world problems because calculus, she says, was developed in response to real-world problems.

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