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:
- “Relationships Matter” - Math Solutions podcast
- “Race in the Math Classroom” - Teacher, Leader, You video series
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!
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