Throughout Black History Month, we’re bringing attention to a project or program within the education field that is making a positive impact on students of color and underserved youth.
We recently caught up with Jim Hollis, Founder and Executive Director of The Calculus Roundtable, one of the most impactful non-profits supporting academic success for underserved students in California. Hollis believes ‘to serve the student we also must serve the system that supports the student.’ Hollis is a school reformer and a social entrepreneur who has worked with some of the country’s largest school districts like Chicago Public Schools and Los Angeles Unified, as well as some of the smallest. He has made it his mission to disrupt how tech industry leaders, higher education, and high schools think about math skills and how to make that message clear to kids, especially kids of color.
What led you to your love of STEM?
As a child, my grandfather gave me a copy of the Worldbook Almanac every year for Christmas, and I would read it cover to cover as quickly as possible. I just loved all the facts and figures. My grandfather’s advice from an early age was, “If you learn your numbers, no one can lie to you about what it means. Everything that’s NOT numbers is just someone’s opinion,” he’d say. So, I did, I learned numbers. And now, so do our students. Several of our schools have the fastest-growing test scores for Black and Latino students in the state, a fact of which I’m very proud.
What I tell teachers, parents, and students who profess and confess they are unable to do math - “I’m not a math person” - they often say. What I say is math is everywhere. For instance, if you can drive home on a quarter tank of gas you are using algebra. What we must first do as educators is explain to students the math they already know.
You identify as a ‘social entrepreneur,’ can you tell us more about that expression and how it translates to your work?
I’m glad you asked! I think of myself as a ‘social entrepreneur’ because my work focuses on identifying challenges in education, matching them with solutions, and implementing research-based solutions as soon as possible. In education, there are lots of places where the system is failing, and where something isn’t being done right. Finding solutions in critical parts of the system can make all the difference between a learning opportunity for kids and a complete disaster. The key to our work is building an inviting environment to learn for students not traditionally welcomed in conversations about math and science.
As a social entrepreneur, I look for a handful of things we can change, including gaps in education, where opportunities to engage might exist, factor in whether volunteers are available, and help to align resources and priorities that best serve the student not the bureaucracy.
Our vision is to give all students an understanding of the world through the lens of math and science. One way to realize this vision is through the creation of lifelong learners of science and math by way of sustainable career pathways for underserved transitional-aged youth and adults and finding opportunities in STEM-related sectors.
For example, we worked with a Tribal Council that was looking for help teaching their students math concepts. They jokingly suggested we consider changing our name because the word calculus can scare people off. There’s a systemic thing about math being “hard” which we are working to help change.
We designed a summer camp program for the tribe where students got to build and use robots, experiment with microscopes, and create DNA necklaces. We even put on a virtual summit with seven other tribes to celebrate space exploration. The Tribal elders thought a 4.5 hour online event would be too long and boring for the kids. What we knew is that when rural kids get to work online with other similarly disenfranchised kids - disenfranchised because of distance – the chance for students to converse with NASA officials and operate 3D Mars lunar robots was a chance of a lifetime. This was a huge confidence boost for them and what is necessary to build a new generation of intelligence.
Many students think they aren’t cut out for higher education math classes let alone a career in math or STEM. Do you have any advice on how to get people to think differently?
Many students may look at math classes and think they are too hard, or that they will never understand the material. But if you want to pursue a career in STEM or mathematics, it's important to believe in yourself, practice, and dream big!
The truth is, higher education math classes can have intimidating material. In some ways, it was designed that way to keep some of us out. However, what you must realize is that the answer to the problem is the same for everyone and if one person can learn it everyone can learn it. We all have different ways of learning, and when you find your own way to learn you too can learn anything you put your mind to. With focus and dedication, anyone can succeed in these courses.
First of all, find a way to make learning the material interesting – play around with the concepts yourself, and break down problems into smaller parts. No one can eat a whole pizza in one bite. Take your time until each step makes sense. Additionally, seek help from others who understand. It’s often easier to learn an equation than a paragraph of prose. Lastly don’t be afraid of mistakes - use them as growth experiences rather than discouragement by celebrating every small victory along your educational journey; this will build confidence both mentally and academically!
At the end of the day remember: no one is born knowing everything about any subject (especially complicated ones like mathematics) so give yourself grace if some areas are still challenging, as mastery comes with practice over time. Keep believing in yourself because anything is possible when we put our minds towards something bigger than ourselves. I tell our kids to dream big and don't let anyone set limits on what they can achieve!
Can you share some of your proudest moments with The Calculus Roundtable?
- A student from a public housing project in Richmond created a YouTube channel in his bedroom. He got equipment through grants from donors via The Calculus Roundtable program he participated in. He delivers content around virtual reality and streamed an exercise with his grandfather where they used virtual reality to see all around Venus and Mars. He shares this and other fun STEM topics with his followers.
- This year’s Bay Area Black Youth Techathon – where hundreds of Bay Area African American students from multiple districts were broadcasted for the first time in Africa. The program included astronomers and astrophysicists from the University of Capetown in South Africa and African-American scientists from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Silicon Valley to watch the Landing of the Perseverance on Mars. Because of the African connection, many locations in Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, and Tanzania beamed the online portion into small villages everywhere. Several locations setup movie screens in the village square so that many children could watch and observe from afar. People traveled for two days to join and watch! They streamed the video into these remote villages using regular wi-fi and gave many people their first view of things we take for granted in this country.
- Our most recent Pi Day Celebration on March 14th around the Bay Area attracted over 1,300 students and their teachers' all conducting calculations and experiments using the famous irrational number.
- Deloitte is leading a group of consultants reconstructing our STEM Broadcasting network platform to manage a million students simultaneously.
- Sponsoring a Diversity & STEM Fellows program with funding for college students enrolled in a STEM degree program to get training, perform tutoring, and mentorship.
Jim Hollis graduated from Ingraham High School in Seattle, WA, and attended Evergreen State College to study Economics. From there, he transferred to the University of Washington where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Micro-Economics and Political Science. He was also a Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He resides in San Francisco, California.