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Calculus Project prepares students for high-level math

Senior AP Calculus and STEM career success are program’s goals

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Calculus Project prepares students for high-level math
Energy was high as rising eighth graders scored points in an algebra game during a summer session of the Calculus Project, a program held at BU that prepares students for math concepts they will learn in the upcoming school year.

Like many others, Dr. Adrian Mims, PhD, had become aware of an important problem: proportionally, far fewer black and Hispanic students were represented in the Advanced Placement Calculus classes of Boston, its suburbs and across the nation when compared to their white and Asian peers. In 2009, Mims pioneered a program he hoped would solve this. He called it the Calculus Project.

The Calculus Project is an educational program that enrolls black, Hispanic, and low-income students before they enter eighth grade. Program members meet during the school year and for three weeks every summer until they graduate from high school, hopefully with 12th grade AP Calculus on their report cards. The program seeks to improve math performance, expose students to successful professionals of color, create a supportive environment and introduce them to career possibilities in science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Graduates have gone on to universities like Harvard and Boston University. Elizabeth Quionez, member of the program’s second graduating class, received a full-scholarship from Harvard.

The program was piloted in Brookline High School in 2009 by Dr. Robert Weintraub, then-headmaster, and Mims, who was then-dean of students.

This year there are programmatic changes: for the first time, the sessions are held at Boston University and program graduates have returned as teaching assistants. One Saturday every month lectures will be offered from leaders in public service, entrepreneurship, education or STEM; eleventh graders will be required to perform a community-improvement project.

Joy of learning

This summer, fifteen rising eighth graders have been meeting from 9am-2pm in a classroom on Boston University’s campus. There they are introduced to algebra topics such as determining the slope of a line and solving for x. Laughter and jokes filled the classroom as the kids dived into a friendly math competition. Upon scoring a point, teammates broke into cheers.

One of the goals of the Calculus Project is “to bring back passion for learning,” said Dr. Keith Lezama, PhD, who teaches the program with Mims. “They’re learning, but having a good time.”

Shawn Bernier, a student at Wayland Middle School, attended the Calculus Project this summer, then quickly signed up to take the program’s second offering of the session.

When Bernier first heard about the program from his METCO director, he was afraid it would be “like a bad summer school” but was happily surprised by how “alive” he found it. He said he already could tell he had progressed in math.

But not all the time is spent in the classroom. Students in the program take field trips to DEI Labs, where they make Lego robots, and look at DNA and RNA under microscopes in the labs of cancer researchers at Harvard Medical School. Time also is set aside for watching videos on notable minority figures and visits by successful professionals of color.

Career path

Mims sees the program as a way not only to ameliorate the academic achievement gap, but also to put minority students on the path to more and higher-paying careers.

“In 2018, they’ll be 300,000 STEM jobs available,” he said. That is a big reason he focused the program around calculus.

Dr. Adrian Mims oversees class.

“Even for non-STEM majors like business, you have to take business calculus. If you haven’t been exposed to calculus, you’re less likely to take it [the major],” Mims added. He worries that some students are driven out of computer science and other majors because they are intimidated by some universities’ math requirements.

Rhiana Page was among the first to graduate from the Calculus Project and now attends Bridgewater State University, majoring in biology with the goal of becoming a physician. She said that taking AP Calculus in her senior year “had a lot to do with the Calculus Project.”

“[It] builds your confidence going into the school year having already taken calc,” she said.

Lezama added that even students who do not go into STEM can be empowered by the accomplishment of succeeding in high-level math.

Some rising eighth graders echoed the career-focus.

Emari Williams, who attends John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, said he joined the Calculus Project because “there will be more STEM jobs in the future.” He currently plans to go into engineering. He recommends the program “for people who want to get better in math and get a good job in life.”

College culture

Mims feels that setting the program at BU familiarizes students with the college environment and emphasizes college as a goal to work toward: “They’ll be on a college campus before they even go to college,” he said.

Aalyia Valentine, who will be an eighth grader at John Glenn Middle School, said her favorite part of the program was being on campus, because it showed her what a real college was like.

Role models

The program places an emphasis on exposing students to minorities who are succeeding in professional careers as a way to “give them a blueprint” of what they can aspire to.

Mims and Lezama are themselves examples.

“This is the first time many of the students have two African American men, who have doctorates, as teachers,” Lezama said. At the start of each session, Mims and Lezama ask class members how many have had teachers of color. Usually only one or two students raise their hands, Lezama said.

Graduates of the program have been brought back as paid teaching assistants. Not only does this combat teen unemployment, which is especially high for teens of color, but it encourages current students to realize “I can make money being smart,” said Mims.

Inspiration

The Calculus Project starts before eighth grade in order to combat early tracking, which Mims said is especially common in the suburban school districts to which METCO students are sent. Under this system, students who are not high-achievers in middle school can get blocked out of taking Honors and AP classes in high school.

“If a student isn’t taking algebra in eighth grade, there’s no way for them to take calculus senior year,” Mims said. Not all public schools teach algebra in the same year.

Educational model

During the school year, Calculus Project students are grouped together in the same math class sections in order to maintain a sense of community and reduce a sense of isolation, which they might feel if they were the only students of color in their honors or AP class, said Mims. This system has proved successful enough that schools have replicated it for other honors and AP classes, such as English.

“Every element of the Calculus Project is rooted in research,” said Mims.

Expansion

Since its inception, the program has expanded to public schools in Malden; Newton; Milton; Boston; Brooklyn, New York; and Orange County, Florida. Mims hopes to bring the college-setting model to Orange County, FL, as well as expand the program to more Boston public schools.

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