Creating Equity in Math: Q&A with Dr. Adrian Mims, Founder of The Calculus Project

Dr. Adrian Mims is the founder of The Calculus Project, an initiative to get students of color in a calculus class before finishing high school. I was fortunate to get some time with Mims and learn more about his convictions on math and education.

He spares no punches when it comes to explaining why we should stop thinking of decisions as either/or when and is an option. His love for mathematics is infectious, and perhaps most importantly, it was learned. In grade school he struggled in math and failed to see the relevance. But his mindset has shifted, and now with a math major and PhD under his belt, he discusses how he instills his lessons into middle and high school kids today, along with suggestions for families and elementary school teachers.

To learn more about Mims' efforts and background, be sure to check out some of his other conversations with us:

This conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Richard Blankman (RB): Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation. I've been looking forward to it.

Dr. Adrian Mims (AM): Absolutely.

RB: Let me ask, If somebody who doesn’t like math asks you why does math matter, what do you tell them?

AM: I tell them that life is all about numbers. It really is. There’s a guy, they call him the Black godfather, his name is Clarence Avant. There’s a documentary on him on Netflix. He’s still alive and is one of the most powerful people in the country. He was all about helping people out and making deals. And he said something that stuck with me. He said, “Life begins with a number and ends with a number.” When you come in this world, you’re given a number. When you leave this world, you’re given a number. I never really thought about it like that, the relevance of numbers.

I also show them the documentary of Antoine Walker, who played for Boston Celtics, among other teams. This guy made close to $100 million and lost it all. How is it that this guy can bring in $100 million over his playing career and be absolutely broke? It’s because he didn’t understand the numbers.

Another thing that I point out to kids is that when you look at Magic Johnson, who’s worth about $600 million, his highest contract year was $3 million a year playing basketball. You look at Michael Jordan who’s worth over $2 billion. They made the bulk of their money off of their business acumen, not from playing basketball.

It’s really about changing their mindset because a lot of young people just think that they can only be good at one thing. And so part of the work that we do with students in The Calculus Project is we let them know that life isn’t either/or, it’s “I can do this” and “I can do that.” You can aspire to play a professional sport, but also go to school, get your degree in business, and learn how to own the team or be a general manager.

RB: One thing that I see very clearly is when you talk about these kids that you worked with, there’s obvious pride in your face.

AM: Oh yeah, man. You know, it’s personal for me, but it’s also therapeutic because I look at my struggles to get to where I am. I remember the people who were right there alongside me who didn’t make it for whatever reason.

I worked in public education at Brookline High School for 19 years. I saw some of the challenges and struggles that students faced. I left in 2013, and over the seven years I’ve gotten a chance to travel around the country and go into a lot of different schools. To be quite honest, I’m embarrassed by some of the squalid conditions where these students go to school, and yet people are saying they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard. Are you kidding me? They don’t have boots or straps!

“When you come in this world, you’re given a number. When you leave this world, you’re given a number. I never really thought about it like that, the relevance of numbers.”

RB: I see a lot of arguments put forward that the focus of math education should not be on getting to algebra, algebra 2, precalculus, then calculus. Instead, we should focus on statistics because learning statistics can supposedly give you better media literacy and engage with math in a more realistic way. What is your reaction to that? Have you had to wrestle with this idea of pure math vs. statistics and more applied math?

AM: Yeah, you know what drives me crazy? Why is it an either/or? Why can’t we have students taking calculus and also support that with integrating in statistics? We need to teach students how math is utilized in the real world. I hear that. But we shouldn’t say students don’t need to have it because they’re never going to use it. I took chemistry. I make a cocktail for myself, but that’s as far as it goes. So why did I have to take a full year of chemistry? Students should have it. They also need to have electives. They need to understand the humanities, the arts. You want full, well-rounded students.

When I hear these people talking about “We need to just make sure students do statistics,” they don’t understand the unintended consequences. If I’m a student and I’m taking eleventh grade precalculus honors and get an A, usually the next course progression is AP calculus. If I decide to take statistics, it’s not bad, but I put myself at a disadvantage if I then decide to go off to college and study to become an electrical engineer. Most of the courses to become an electrical engineer are knee-deep in calculus. It’s better to have it under your belt and not need it, than to need it, and not have it.

The other thing is that a lot of elite schools, they won’t even look at students unless they have calculus on their transcript. It’s important to think about what we want. Do we want learning? Or do we want performance? Admissions representatives for some of the most elite schools, they’re looking for performance. They’re looking at GPAs, ACT scores, SAT scores. When they see a student who has calculus on their transcript, for them that translates into that student graduating within 4–6 years. If learning were an important criterion, they would integrate a growth model as part of their college acceptance process.

RB: There was one part of your talk at our recent Think Connected: Exploring Leadership Challenges virtual summit that stuck out to me. You showed different quotes that illustrated the importance of advanced math going into college and going into the real world. The last quote was from Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, who was my former college president. I went to UMBC.

AM: Get out of here! You did?

RB: Yeah!

AM: He’s my mentor! I met Freeman eight years ago. He came to Boston to speak at a conference. I introduced him, and since then we’ve stayed in contact. If I email him, he gets back to me within 24 hours. And that makes me feel special because I know how busy he is and how many other people he mentors. Small world, man. You went to a good school.

RB: I’m going to guess, just given the nature of your work, you’re familiar with UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars program and Dr. Hrabowski’s work getting minority students graduating in STEM fields?

AM: Yeah. I actually visited UMBC. I went there and spent some time there with him and Keith Harmon, who oversees the Meyerhoff program.

RB: The application process for the Meyerhoff Scholars program is two days long. You spend a night there, and it is intensive. Hrabowski recommends that everybody, no matter how much math they took in high school, take Calculus 1 again starting their first year of college. Do you agree that even if you took calculus in high school, in your first year of college, you should take it again?

AM: Yeah, I think they should. Just because a student is taking calculus in high school, it doesn’t mean that is a good calculus class or that they actually learned anything. The other thing is that it helps students understand the culture on the college campus in terms of how they’re going to be taught. I think kids definitely should have that experience of just taking it over. And I think Freeman knows that all math grades aren’t necessarily legitimate and all math teachers aren’t necessarily very knowledgeable of the content.

“A lot of elite schools, they won’t even look at students unless they have calculus on their transcript.”

RB: What kind of advice would you give an elementary school teacher? What advice would you give to even a kindergarten or first grade teacher to prepare students as early as possible for calculus in high school?

AM: Make. Math. Fun. When I left Brookline in 2013, for about a year I was in Norfolk, Virginia visiting classrooms kindergarten to third grade. And I was blown away. That was the first time that I actually spent so much time in those classes. When I was in those classes, I actually saw Black and Latinx kids love math. There was one kid who was dancing because it was math time! And it made me think, wow, what is happening between K to 3? When I see these kids as eighth graders, they hate it. It’s like they’re Superman and it’s Kryptonite. I think that kids are losing the relevance, the love, the passion of mathematics. And I would encourage teachers to get to know their kids, find out what they’re passionate about, and make the math applicable.

They can do something very simple. I give my kids a questionnaire, and I use the questionnaire to get some insight as to who they are and what they like to do. So if they like to listen to Drake, I’m like, well Drake just hinted at a $460 million deal with Nike. I can make a math problem about that, right? Or I could just take a regular math problem and change the name from Bill to Drake, you know? Now the problem is a lot more interesting because you’re meeting kids where they are.

The other thing I would say is try to bring in the parents. Let the parents know how they can be assets and allies to their children with this learning. For example, when parents want to help their child with homework, a lot of the times parents say, “I never did the math this way.” Okay, that’s cool, so instead of your child leaving the problem blank, encourage your child to write down a really, really good question. And try to refrain from using language such as, “Well I never was good at math. I’m not a math person.” Because now you’re planting that seed in your child’s mind that you’re either born a mathematician or you’re not.

RB: Thank you so much for your time. I look forward to talking again.

AM: Pleasure meeting you. Be well.

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