Whether your kids dream about creating the next Facebook, developing artificially intelligent robots, designing a hit video game, or flying to Mars, there’s one thing that engineers, psychologists, programmers, and scientists alike agree you’ll need: math skills.

While the rest of the world advances, American kids today are falling behind as large class sizes and shrinking resources lump together students of all skill levels — something that both frustrates and motivates Sandy and Jason Roberts. Sandy and Jason are the husband and wife founders of Math Academy, a Pasadena-area pilot program developed to identify and prepare mathematically gifted students to excel in the honors math and science programs of elite universities.

Innovate Pasadena is excited to be a supporter of Math Academy’s upcoming competition, Solve 2017, where the program’s students have a chance to show their skills and compete for awards both individually and in teams at a contest held at the Caltech campus. As the couple prepares for the competition on May 13th, we took a few moments to chat about how it all got started.

Innovate Pasadena: Let’s start with the obvious question: what prompted you to form Math Academy?

Jason Roberts: Three years ago, my wife and I were recruited to coach our son’s 4th-grade Math Field Day team at McKinley School, which we did a couple times per week for about six months. It was pretty chaotic with 19 kids (during their lunch period no less), but it was also a lot of fun, and we were amazed at how much ground we covered in such a short amount of time. It was clear from their complaining that they found their normal, grade-level math tedious and unchallenging, so we felt pretty good about what we were doing. But it wasn’t just about acceleration. We also spent quite a bit of time working on problem-solving techniques and competing in various math competitions, which probably helped the kids mature mathematically.

The following year (and after some intense lobbying on our part), we were able to transition our lunchtime coaching sessions into a 3-day-per-week pull-out enrichment class, which is when things really took off. We started out the year with the crazy idea of trying to teach the kids basic algebra, but they learned it so quickly that after a few months we progressed to cover more advanced topics like the theory of functions, combinatorics, trigonometry, sequences and series, and even a little bit of calculus. At that point, we knew we had lightning in a bottle. The kids were having a blast and learning at an incredible pace.

IP: How did you get involved with Sierra Madre Elementary, Sierra Madre Middle School, and Washington STEAM? Do you plan on expanding to include other grades/ages or schools?

JR: Eventually, the district superintendent, who was a former a math teacher himself, got wind of our class and surprised us with a visit, which was the real turning point for us. He was so blown away by what the kids were doing and how excited and proud they were about they had learned, that he asked my wife and if we would him create a district pilot based on our model. That was easier said than done, or course, something my wife, who’s a little saner than me, had repeatedly warned me about, but with the help of Helen Hill, the Director of Curriculum, and Nadirah Nayo, the District Math Coach, we were finally able to persevere through all of the bureaucracy and red tape.

So, this year we launched the program in the four schools you mentioned, with both 5th- and 6th-grade classes. We chose these schools because they were geographically and socioeconomically diverse, but it also came down to finding schools that could make it happen logistically. The plan going forward is to start the program in the 6th grade at four of the district’s middle schools and to carry it through at a single high school. The pace at which our kids learn will have them completing calculus in 8th grade, so as unbelievable as it sounds, our high school curriculum will be roughly equivalent to that of a first-tier undergraduate math program.

IP: What is the main advantage to getting kids with a propensity for math into an extremely accelerated program like this?

JR: There are several advantages, which I’ll go into, but one of the most important is that of increased optionality. For kids to have any hope of surviving a STEM field at an elite university, they need elite-level training. The reality is that their chances of succeeding at something like math or physics at a place like Stanford, having only taken up through AP Calculus, are simply not very good. In fact, it’s not much different than expecting to play basketball at UCLA having only played the sport on your high school’s junior varsity team. These schools select the top students from around the world and those kids have all done considerably more than what’s offered in the standard high-school curriculum. In fact, a mathematician from Caltech recently told me that their undergraduate admissions committee looks for candidates who’ve already published original mathematical research, which of course, is lightyears beyond the kind of math that kids do in high school.

Another reason is that mathematics is like a foreign language in that the earlier you learn it, the easier it is to pick up and the better and longer it sticks. By the time our kids get to college, they will have had years building on topics that your typical honors high school student will have barely touched on, so their fluency and ability to problem solve with those topics will be at an exceptionally high level. Think about it this way. Who would have a better chance of making it to the Olympics? The girl who started doing gymnastic at 14 or the one who started at 5? There’s really no comparison.

But beyond all that, there’s just an incredible amount of pride and sense of accomplishment that comes from mastering that level of mathematics at such a young age and it will give these kids the confidence to go after any challenge in front of them. If you can learn complex analysis and abstract algebraic as a high schooler, what can’t you do?!

IP: Over 66% of PUSD students are economically disadvantaged — do you find that you have just as many underprivileged kids in your program?

JR: It’s probably a little less at the moment since the classes at our Sierra Madre schools, which have a high socio-economic demographic, currently make up a significant portion of our program population, but that will change as the program expands and matures. Also, while I think it’s a little too early to tell what the ultimate proportion of underprivileged kids will be, it’s my belief that mathematical talent is spread pretty evenly across the general population and we’re going to do whatever we can to capture and cultivate that talent wherever it exists. That’s why we’re doing this.

IP: How do you identify students for the program?

JR: At the moment, students are identified by how well they do on a standardized 6th-grade test that they take while they’re still in the 5th grade. It’s an objective measure that seems to do a pretty good job of identifying mathematical giftedness, but it will likely be something we’ll refine over time.

IP: Can this also help students who struggle with mathematical concepts?

JR: I’m not sure there’s much overlap between what our program is geared towards and the difficulties faced by students who struggle with mathematical concepts. For example, my son is mathematically gifted while one of my daughters struggles with it, and frankly, there’s simply no comparison between how their brains deal with the subject. That’s why jamming kids like that into the same math class makes for such a frustrating and unproductive experience.

IP: Do you envision a more or less extensive partnership with teachers and parents?

JR: So far our relationship with teachers has been more about schedule coordination than collaboration. While they’ve been very friendly and supportive across the board what we’re teaching is so much more advanced than what they cover that there’s really not a whole lot to collaborate on. Plus, we’re just solving a different problem than they are. They often have 35–40+ kids in a single class who have a wide range of abilities and interest, while we have a small group of high-ability students who are hyper focused and excited about learning math at an accelerated rate. Honestly, the grade-level teachers have a much harder job than we do, but by taking some of the kids off of their hands it does allow them to focus more on the kids who are struggling to learn grade level topics than having to worry about the handful of kids who are beyond it.

In terms of the parents, we try to keep them as engaged as possible because the more support we get from home, the better the kids do. But this really isn’t a problem because the parents are naturally enthusiastic about a program like this. You should see the emails we’ve received from parents expressing how appreciative they are!

IP: If any of our readers out there that are interested in helping Math Academy in some way, who should they contact?

JR: They can just send an email to info@mathacademy.com, and of course, we’d appreciate any help we can get!

More About Math Academy

Jason Roberts majored in mathematics at the University of Chicago, spent years doing startups and building high-frequency trading systems, and — not wanting to leave Pasadena — turned down a position as CTO at Uber. In late 2010, he joined Uber as a consultant and was ultimately responsible for designing and building much of the company’s original real-time technology and other key technologies. In addition to working on Math Academy, he spends his time advising startups and established companies alike on their technology strategy and product roadmaps.

For more information about the program and the upcoming Solve 2017 competition, visit https://www.mathacademy.us/. If you are interested in supporting Math Academy or getting involved, email info@mathacademy.com.