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Gilbert gets the flu

Exploring fiction writing as a way to learn math

By Kim McGrath Office of Communications and External Relations
Economics professor Fred Chen and Janna Raley co-published a paper about learning mathematics through fiction writing.
Economics professor Fred Chen and Janna Raley co-published a paper about learning mathematics through fiction writing.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” This is how Janna Raley (’13) started her mathematical economics paper. Surprised?  So was her professor.

Fred Chen, the economics professor: “Last fall, I taught a course on game theory. In that course, I require students to write a paper using the tools of game theory. There are no restrictions on the topic. To my surprise and delight, my student Janna Raley wrote her paper in the form of a children’s book complete with original artwork!”

Janna, the student: “When I first came to Wake Forest, I wanted to major in economics, but I struggled in calculus. But, before I threw in the towel on economics I signed up for professor Chen’s microeconomics class. I wasn’t sure I could succeed. I vividly remember Dr. Chen leaning on his desk the first day of class and casually saying, ‘This class is really hard. You have to take it seriously, otherwise some of you will fail it.’ I decided I should go in for help right from the beginning, and I am very glad I did.

I ended up building my entire economics course scheduling around Dr. Chen’s classes. Game Theory was my third class with him, and over my four years of study, I had gotten to know professor Chen well. So, when he repeatedly assured me that he did not care about the format of the paper and wanted to be entertained, I decided to trust that.”

Chen, the professor: “I was so smitten with Janna’s paper that I contacted the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics to see if they would be interested in publishing it. The editor told me that if Janna and I co-wrote a pedagogical paper about this whole experience, the journal would publish Janna’s story as part of the paper.”

And they did. You can download the paper, “Math Stories: Learning and Doing Mathematics through Fiction Writing,” and Janna’s story, “Gilbert Gets the Flu” at the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics: Vol. 3: Iss. 2.

"Did you see how big that needle is?...Gilbert is not very tough, and there is a real chance he might pass out."

“Did you see how big that needle is? … Gilbert is not very tough, and there is a real chance he might pass out.”

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is Gilbert’s question

A call from her mother inspired Raley’s story. The question: Did you get your flu shot?

“This question made me ask if everyone really needs to get vaccinated. I started writing about a fictional character, Gilbert, and his decision whether or not to get a flu shot mostly as a joke. It was fun thinking of how to apply what I’d learned in professor Chen’s class to help Gilbert make a choice. ‘Fun’ is not a word most people use to describe an economics paper, so I got the feeling this was something special.”

As the socially awkward Gibert tries to decide whether to get a flu shot or not, the reader listens in on his thoughts as he weighs the costs and benefits, and risks and rewards.

“The story of “Gilbert Gets the Flu” explains, in an easy to understand and fun way, some of the basics of game theory,” says Chen. “But what intrigued Janna and I was whether the process of writing the math story might help some students learn the math more easily. It seemed that writing might also help some people get more interested in math when they see how it can be applied. The example I gave in the paper is that someone writing a spy story with secret codes might want to learn more about number theory and cryptography.”

Raley says “Gilbert Gets the Flu” likely helped her land her dream job at BBC Research and Consulting in Denver, Colo., where she uses her mathematical story-telling skills daily. “My writing skills are incredibly important. We often have to translate quantitative findings into meaningful reports for our clients, who seldom have economic backgrounds. I’m so happy I majored in economics. And taking that first class with Dr. Chen was a huge part of the reason I stuck with it.”

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