When Data Meets Candy: A Voting Story

Sixth Grade Math and Science teacher Michael Matthews has integrated an interdisciplinary study of data science with the Humanities curriculum. Middle School students have been studying different aspects of the elections in their Humanities classes for the past several weeks. Michael used the math and science classes to add data analysis to this study and decided to use Halloween candy as a way to get them involved in the election process.

We sat down with Sixth Grade Math and Science teacher Michael Matthews and asked him to tell us more.

What’s going on with this election project we’ve been hearing about?

MM: Students in Middle School Humanities classes have had studying different aspects of the elections for the past several weeks. I wanted to use our math and science classes to add data analysis to this study and decided to use Halloween candy. It’s been a great way to give kids a tactile experience and get them involved in actual elections.

It really hooks to their lived experience too.

MM: Yes, it’s perfectly in-the-moment and works for this season. It wouldn’t come off the same in February or July. Last month the students voted for Student Council, and the actual process was somewhat complicated or confusing to some, and I could see the stress on their faces. After that experience, I asked them, “do you think that voting for President is easy?” and I could see the lights go on for everyone that this is a big deal. So the idea that elections sound easy but are complicated is something we are exploring throughout the whole Middle School. For example, the Humanities curriculum has looked at topics such as voting access, voting complications, and whether ballots get counted or not. The candy election was set up to allow for spoiled ballots, for example, if someone selected more than four candies their vote didn’t count.

So students voted for their favorite candy?

MM: The first stage of this project was choosing the top four, and I did that in honor of the local experience and the race for the Santa Cruz City Council. All of the candidates are women, which is pretty cool. I opened my ballot with the class and talked through it, which helped them understand how ballots work. I had a set of candies to include, and the kids added some more ideas, so in the end, we listed 15-20 choices. We sent it out to all students and staff with a Gateway email account and got back about 90 responses. The data is anonymous so we can’t analyze who voted for what, and the students talked about whether to do an exit poll, but we didn’t.

The second phase will use ranked-choice voting, which is happening in Maine and some other districts around the country. This is a way of voting that potentially changes the divisive nature of elections because it might encourage people to appeal to the middle instead of the extremes. We’re having the top four vote-getting candies run for mayor, which are Sour Patch Kids, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Skittles, and Kit Kat. This phase is also a week long.

The third phase will be a “ticket” election, just like how the President and Vice-President choices are presented in pairs. The students will help decide on the tickets among the candies. There are four or five ticket choices on Presidential ballots in California, but nationally there are only two big parties who have a realistic shot, so we might add in a fringe third-party candidate like licorice to see if that siphons off any votes.

Phase four is where this initial idea for this whole project came from, which will be creating power rankings. This is something that often happens in sports, and it’s a way of going through one-on-one matchups to find out which is most favored. 538 did this with about 80 candies, and that was inspiring to see. I think the kids will really enjoy it.

Why is teaching data and measurement important?

MM: I’ve always appreciated how mathematics comes alive when numbers and patterns are paired with images. It’s a pleasing combination, like complex flavors in food, where there is a mix of sweet and salty and savory — data visualization does all of that. I’m also fascinated by how people manipulate data visualizations and represent things nefariously, and want our students to be literate in that way so that when they are being lied to or told half-truths, they can determine that for themselves.

That really ties right to our mission statement!

MM: Yes, it’s sinking in there with their innate sense of justice, and I know the Humanities program is addressing this directly too. For example, we did a gerrymandering puzzle in class, since this was brought up in Humanities. One party was underrepresented compared to the other, and the kids could redraw the map to address this issue. The only rule is that each voting district has to be comprised of five contiguous squares. And what they recognized was that politicians have the right to draw districts that don’t make sense outside of supporting their party — they aren’t based on neighborhoods or simplicity. They had learned this concept in Humanities, and this activity actually put it into practice. So this gets us to questions about what is legal compared to what is ethical.

What else are students learning in this project?

MM: So far we’ve been looking at how data is represented, and we’re using this project to help the students learn how to use Google Sheets, which is an important technical skill for managing information. Later on, they are going to learn what makes a good survey question, what makes a good poll question, and what does not. I recently introduced a “double-barreled” survey question, and we talked about why those are not good questions to ask. And all of this helps prepare students for the rigors of the Science Fair, which comes later in the year.

Have you had any surprises thus far?

MM: The level of background information that students have, and how they are able to take the language from Humanities and apply it in this new context. They are becoming informed citizens about the challenges to our democracy. And all in three weeks, this isn’t a ton of class time! And the rest of the curriculum is continuing too. It’s really great to see that this is being woven into the Sixth Grade curriculum successfully.