BEAM Update: Fall 2019

Welcome to a regular sequence of blog posts where I’ll give some personal updates on BEAM’s progress as an organization and my journey within it. I’m transitioning from sending these via personal emails to a format that everyone can access.

Summer Program at Harvey Mudd and Reflections on Growth

Last summer I had the pleasure of visiting BEAM’s first-ever residential program for Los Angeles students, held at Harvey Mudd College.

If you haven’t ever been to “BEAM Summer Away,” as it’s called, it’s a magical experience. It’s an amazing group of students developing a community together that is based around math and making friends for a lifetime. They’re also learning all kinds of interesting, deep math unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. It’s especially powerful for me because a similar experience was life-changing for me growing up.

In addition to outstanding courses (everything from projective planes to public-key cryptography), the students just had such a vibrant community. They invented a song and then game based on the Spanish word for lettuce, developed all kinds of little clubs (such as a gang based on slide-on sandals), and more. Board games and Rubik’s cubes were in evidence, as were lots of people working on and enjoying math. They even made a big book of their math work at the end and signed it like a yearbook, where each student had a page dedicated to their favorite problem.

To be sure, there were growing pains at having a new site. We were still learning about the space, and of course we had to expand our staff at all levels to grow, from counselors up to site leadership. All of our sites went well, but there were a few signs that we’re pushing it: the percentage of students who said they were more interested in math dropped a little bit across our summer programs (could be normal variation, could be significant) and we had fewer experienced staff because they had to be spread across more sites. It’s also just harder to provide consistent training across six summer sites!

I’ve often had some minor envy for friends who work at rapidly-growing tech startups, but the truth is that the scale of working directly with students is just different. So while BEAM continues to expand in other ways (see below), summer 2020 will have the same sites as summer 2019. This will allow us to focus on building a larger base of returning staff and more generally ensuring we have the systems to promote quality classes and experiences for students.

Student Experiences

As our Black and Latinx students have gone on to spaces where they’re in the minority, we’ve often heard stories about how they feel excluded. In the past year, two of our staff members, Sylvia and Ayinde, started weekly support groups that meet at our office on Thursdays. We provide food and give our high school students the opportunity to talk together, separated into boys and girls. I’m glad for the support we’re providing, but it also means that we hear more about what happens, and it’s also clear that it’s not enough.

We’ve heard all kinds of stories. The girl in high school who hears the n-word repeatedly in the hallway and has people looking to touch her hair. (Seriously?) The college student who just can’t find a community he’s comfortable with in his dorm and who feels socially isolated. And so on.

Some students go through these spaces and the slights they experience seem to slide off. For others, it sinks much deeper and provides a real barrier to success. It’s clear that our students would do better and be happier if we could support them through it.

On the other hand, doing so is difficult. Trained social workers, especially in small groups, are expensive. The commute for the support group takes a lot of time for students, and so it’s not clear if we’d be able to get that many more students involved. There’s a lot more to think about here.

Fundraising

It’s the end of the year. The fundraising we do now will be used to set our budget for the coming year—BEAM tries to budget conservatively, and hence ensure we have all cash on hand for the coming year before setting our expenses. We also have a big gap, as our Los Angeles startup grant runs out this year.

Fortunately, fundraising so far is going well. Our Board of Directors has once again stepped up with an impressive matching challenge: all contributions matched dollar-for-dollar, and new donors or those who increase their donation will see their increase multiplied by pi. All told, the board is putting in over $600,000 to spur additional donations. That’s catalyzed a lot of solid giving for our organization, which is great.

If you’ve been around me recently in fundraising contexts, you’ve heard some variation on the following metaphor: we have the car, and we have the GPS; we’re asking you for the gas. I like that metaphor because it captures how funding helps us. If you are able to donate, you can do so here.

Hiring

One of my persistent problems as Executive Director is managing my own time. There’s just too much to do, and prioritizing important but non-urgent tasks has been a consistent area of growth. (This update is coming out about a month after I intended it to!)

To support me, we’re hiring a Chief of Staff! If you’re like me, you didn’t really know what a Chief of Staff does. It turns out that a Chief of Staff isn’t the chief of the staff; instead, they act as an extension of the CEO, but decisions all still come my way. I’d be so grateful if you could recommend the position to anyone who might be a good fit. We are especially looking for leadership staff who share the backgrounds of our students.

Meanwhile, we have begun hiring summer staff! Hiring the best possible summer staff is absolutely essential to what we do, and we hire people at all levels: professors and experienced teachers for faculty roles; early teachers and graduate students for junior faculty roles; and undergraduates for counselor roles. All details here. Please share broadly!

National Programs

BEAM often gets contacts that go something like this. “I live in xyz town, can I participate?” Or “I’m a teacher not in New York or Los Angeles, can I nominate a student?” In all cases, so far, the answer has been no.

Soon, that will (hopefully) change!

We’re soon going to begin fundraising for a new national program. We plan to offer low-income, low-access elementary students nationwide free access to Art of Problem Solving’s Beast Academy. This is an online platform that allows students to do deep and interesting math. Those who do well would be invited to continue to online classes, then our residential BEAM Summer Away program. Following that, we would provide remote individual mentoring and online classes through college graduation.

I’m really excited to bring together a diverse group of students from across the country. I think it will be such an interesting and vibrant group of people meeting each other. Yes, growing BEAM’s access appeals to me, but it is building communities that really excites me.

Of course, there are a lot of unknowns. I wonder how our national students will differ from students we work with locally. Will they already be plugged in to more opportunities? Will the requirement for internet access shift the students we’re getting? What about recruiting through national partners? Once the program has launched, we’ll have to do a lot of analysis of both inputs and outcomes. Regardless, something interesting will happen, and I’m very excited to see what it is!

BEAM in the Media

Four mentions of note:

Our annual report is also out for the year, and it’s absolutely beautiful. My favorite part is a two-page spread of reflections from people who have been involved with BEAM at all levels. See it here.

BEAM at the Joint Math Meetings

We’re co-organizing a Special Session of the American Mathematical Society for the upcoming Joint Math Meetings in January. If you are coming to JMM, please come to our session and learn about a number of exciting outreach initiatives for underserved students. Details here.

I’m also giving a related talk that we didn’t have time for in the session.

If you are around, let me know!

And that wraps up this update

But before concluding: I want to congratulate two BEAM students on their outstanding college admissions! Esteeven will be attending Columbia University next fall, and Yohely will be attending Wesleyan University. Both were admitted early through the Questbridge program. Congratulations; I’m really excited for what they’re both doing next.

And thank you, as ever, to everyone who keeps helping BEAM along. I said before how what I love is building communities; it is the community around BEAM that makes it thrive.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

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