A Conversation with Dr. Adrian Mims, Founder of The Calculus Project Founder

Dr. Adrian Mims, Founder and National Director of The Calculus Project, will be one of two featured speakers at our upcoming BU Wheelock Community Symposium, taking place on March 29 and 30 at the Fenway Campus.

Before he joins us on campus, Dr. Mims sat down with us to chat about The Calculus Project, the grassroots-style initiative he founded to dramatically increase the number of students of color and low-income students who complete AP Calculus in high school. This program has been implemented here in Massachusetts and in Orlando, Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, the 9th largest school district in the country.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I went to the University of South Carolina and started out as an electrical engineering major, changed my major junior year to mathematics and graduated with a Bachelor’s in mathematics then moved to Massachusetts in 1994. I really didn’t know what I was going to do with a mathematics degree at the time, but the opportunity presented itself to tutor and work with students at Brookline High School who participated in the METCO program.

I actually started as a METCO tutor for Brookline then ended up going back to school–went to Simmons College twice for two master’s. A master’s of arts in teaching Mathematics and then a second master’s that’s called a CAGS–a certificate of advanced graduate study and then I decided to pursue my doctorate at Boston College. My dissertation topic was Improving African America Achievement in Geometry Honors and so I wrapped up my Doctorate at BC in 2010.

What inspired you to found The Calculus Project?

It was actually an extension to my dissertation and my dissertation was really prompted by my experience at Brookline High School. While I was at Brookline High School, I wasn’t only just a math teacher, I was a summer school director for seven years, I was the Associate Dean for seven years and when I left in 2013 at that time I was the Dean of Students. But throughout all of that time, I was in the classroom at some point–whether it was full time or part time–I always kept current in teaching pedagogy and working with students.

One of the things that I noticed was on average we would have anywhere between 25 and 30 African American students enrolling in Geometry Honors, which is the first course in the sequence of courses that will lead you to calculus. But, when you’d follow that class’s matriculation, by the time they’re seniors there were no black students in AP Calculus even though ideally there should be.

So, something that I noticed was that we started losing 60%-70% of our students by the second quarter in Geometry Honors. I found that fascinating because it was higher rate than any other racial group. That was how my dissertation started. What I learned from doing the literature review and through conducting research resulted in some preventive measures.

One of which was pre-teaching the core mathematical topics to students before they went into the class and teaching students to work collaboratively in groups so they could support one another when they were clustered in the same math sections.  Additionally, students received ongoing support after school in the academic center and learned about the contributions of STEM professionals of color through the pride curriculum. So, implementing those things after speaking with the students, finding out what they needed to be successful – The Calculus Project really evolved out of that work.

A WBUR article explained how The Calculus Project brings opportunities—from free movie passes to cloning fruit flies—to students. Can you tell us about how you’ve structured the program to be different from other STEM-based support programs?

I would say the major difference is this: there are a lot of fabulous STEM programs out there, but with a lot of them there is an assumption that students of color or maybe the low income students aren’t even interested in STEM so their approach is “we’re going to do a lot of fun things and you’re going to find these exercises and activities so much fun that you’re going to want to do STEM.”

What I believe is that students love STEM anyway, especially students of color and low-income students. If you see a student creating with Legos, that’s STEM. If you see a student constructing paper airplanes, that’s STEM. So, there are a lot of things that students already do that can be connected to STEM. And, when the approach is to get students to love STEM when they already do STEM, they get inspired by these programs.

But often, they go back into the school house and then something else happens: if they’re not strong in math and science, these students get tracked into lower math and science courses. And so even though they love STEM, by the time they become seniors in high school, and they want to go off to a four-year institution or maybe even a two-year institution and pursue a career in STEM, they don’t have the requisite math and science courses to be successful even though they have the desire.

We know that if students are strong in math, there’s a likelihood that they will be strong in science. My belief is that if we strengthen the math skills, make that the first intervention, and make that the number one priority and then build STEM experiences around that (such as cloning fruit flies, taking students to Harvard Medical School, taking them to MIT, having them create with Legos, having them do coding activities)

We focus on math literacy and empowering students to own their learning, so they can advocate for themselves.  Then when they go back to their respective schools, not only do they love STEM, but they have the requisite skill set, techniques, and knowledge to excel in mathematics which will then lead to them taking advanced math courses, and will also lead to them doing well in science. So, by the time they are seniors and they want to go off to a two- or a four-year institution, they actually have the math and science courses coupled with the desire to do well.

I’ve been fortunate enough that the students from the first cohort of The Calculus Project have graduated from college and I’ve stayed in contact with them, so I’ve learned a lot from their experiences that really reinforced this approach.

Many teachers, current and future, feel passionate about social justice and equity. What’s your message to those teachers?

I have a lot of messages: You’ve got to continue to keep up the fight because it can be very challenging, and it takes someone who is courageous to continue this fight. If you are someone who’s pursuing equity and social justice and if people are not getting uncomfortable, then that means that what you’re doing isn’t working.

When you are really out there to create change and promote equity and social justice that means that you are pushing against a lot of norms and when you push up against a lot of norms you’re upending the status quo, which means there’s going to be some change taking place. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with change because instead of thinking about what they have to gain too often people think about what they have to lose.

The other thing I would just say to them is do a lot of reading, do a lot of research, because you have to find a way to separate your mission from what the “status quo” people are doing. And, it just can’t be your own personal opinion or personal preference that these changes should take place. You have to validate and quantify the changes you want to make by using research close those equity gaps.

To read about Alums of the Calculus Project in the Brookline Tab, click here.

Interested in hearing Dr. Mims speak? RSVP to the Symposium here.

– Grace Hagerty