Reflecting on the year at BEAM

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted about BEAM and my own work—of course things have been busy, and I’ve had little time to pause and share. These times have genuinely taught me a lot about myself and about BEAM, and I’m glad to finally write some of that down.

So how has BEAM been doing?

Actually, as an organization, BEAM has been doing remarkably well considering the state of the world. Although diminished by the distance we’ve all felt from each other while working from home, the team has done amazing work and really stuck together in powerful ways. We all miss being in the office, but we still have such a strong sense of camaraderie. It’s an amazing team.

BEAM has also been succeeding in lots of other ways. Most notably, we’ve really gone the extra mile to support our students. We’ve run online summer programs and classes (including delivery of over 400 laptops, individual provision of internet, and more), provided emergency relief funds to families in need, and supported students through the chaos that has been schools trying to respond to the pandemic, college admissions, colleges going remote, and so on and so forth. I could tell you more, but the link above, to our regular donor updates, does a better job than I could. I’m so proud of what we’ve done.

We’ve also hit our fundraising goals, likely raising enough to make some much-needed infrastructure improvements as we grow from “small startup nonprofit” to something approaching mid-size and more professional. (For example, we will soon have an actual HR person, rather than the hodgepodge of roles we’ve all been keeping so far!)

We’re launching a new national program that will begin working with students in elementary school and support many of them through college graduation. The program, which will use donated licenses of Art of Problem Solving’s Beast Academy, could be a real game changer in terms of reaching a lot of students with interesting math and finding students nationwide who can most benefit from BEAM’s work. (By the way, we’re hiring an Executive Director and I’d love your help spreading the word. See below for more details.)

In other words, from an organizational standpoint, BEAM has honestly excelled. It’s a testament to our team.

What that doesn’t capture, though, is the exhaustion. Can I tell you for a moment how hard it is to arrange internet access for families that don’t have it? At first our plan was to get tablets on cell phone plans. Those tablets could act as hot spots to connect to the laptops we provided. However, we discovered (after ordering 80 tablets!) that, while our plan was 50GB/month, the fine print said you could only use 10GB/month for connected devices. After the first week of LA’s programs, students were running out of bandwidth on Zoom.

So then we switched to trying to get wired internet access. But setting aside the coordination of so many different installs, that doesn’t solve the problem for families who had wired internet but fell behind on payments (and thus can’t reinstate it without first paying back charges), families that might live in unregistered housing setups (e.g. basements), or families that live in shelters where such installs aren’t allowed. We had to get a hodgepodge of devices together, including some expensive wireless access points with higher limits, and for some families we simply delivered a new tablet every week so they’d have a fresh 10GB!

Then there was designing a new online program, training our staff, setting up our technology (I can’t thank the tech volunteers who designed the student portal enough), running student registration online instead of by mail, etc. etc. etc.

All of which is to say: the staff were exhausted. (Have I mentioned the personal tolls of the pandemic and the historic, and still horribly unresolved, racial reckoning in the US?) Meanwhile, while I am proud of the new National program and we’ve been planning it for years, I was working to set it up exactly when we were designing our online summer programs. So at the time that everyone was at their busiest, my attention was divided. It’s a hard balance to strike; after all, those plans really had been in motion for years.

So BEAM is doing great, but our staff are tired! Fortunately, once we got past the summer, we were able to return to a much more normal workload, and we’ve put in place the structures to succeed working remotely. I think everyone is also deeply energized by what we accomplished. Nonetheless: I have a lot of reflecting to do as a leader, especially for future times like this. It’s one of the reasons changes such as creating an HR department are so important: it will put us in an even better position to weather the next unexpected challenge.

Leadership reflections

I think that 2020 would have been an interesting year for BEAM no matter what. We’re now at 45 full-time-equivalent people (counting summer staff, part timers, etc.) and that means we need to transition to stronger systems and more refined processes. Communication that used to be easy when we were a three-person office now needs to be structured. Sometimes I just think everyone can read my mind! One key asset as we evolve is the hire of our new Chief of Staff, who started in May and brings experience with exactly the kind of structure BEAM needs so badly. She’s been guiding us to a place where we can have the structure we need while maintaining the flexibility we want.

Moreover, the events of the summer have really brought forth a problematic truth that has been at play throughout the life of BEAM: I’m a white man leading an organization that serves primarily students of color. I don’t share the experiences of the students we serve. I worry, also, that there’s an extent to which BEAM’s priorities impose additional burdens on students already managing their own values, lives, and achievements.

My answer to this has always been to listen a lot and elevate the voices of our staff and students. While I am ultimately responsible for BEAM and the choices we make, it’s my priority to build staff consensus whenever possible, and to make sure I have thoroughly listened to and understood everyone’s point of view when consensus is not possible. That’s my way; I try to really know the bounds of what I know and what I don’t know, and to use the wisdom of others whenever possible.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work when you’re supposed to be a leader and the country is going through the kind of events it’s gone through recently. I don’t think I appreciated how much the staff want to know where I stand, not just know that I am listening to their opinions. This is a side of leadership that I had never really considered before, but especially in a mission-driven organization it’s so important.

(It is also, perhaps, complicated by the fact that my own views are more activist than many of my friends, driven in large part by my BEAM work, but less activist than many of the BEAM staff! It can be quite a journey going from friends where I am explaining why I think that addressing systemic racism and white supremacy is so important right now, only to go to a staff meeting where I can feel like I’m playing catch-up in parsing the events of the day. This tension has been profoundly stressful to me personally, especially whenever I feel like I’m not living up to the leadership the staff need.)

Anyway, there’s a lot to think about. My podcast feed has had a lot more about leadership, and I’m so grateful to the two programs I was a part of that provided me with leadership coaching in the past year. It’s made me wonder if I want to find another coach going forward.

Wrapping up

So where does that leave me at the end of the year?

I’m so proud of the work that BEAM has done. We’ve done really important things for our students, while continuing to grow the organization and move into new areas that position us so well for future work. BEAM is stronger than it’s ever been, despite the events of the world.

I’m tired, but also energized in my way. Sometime soon, I am going to take a true and restful vacation, although I don’t know what that means. Historically, I haven’t found rest very restful! Maybe I’ll take a break to write a novel. :)

I’m learning so much about myself, the world, and leadership. I feel like I’ve grown more as a leader in the past year than in the five years prior. It’s also shown me just how much more growing I still have to do.

Regardless, I am excited for 2021. There’s so much work to do, both at BEAM and in society at large, but I feel so energized to see that progress and growth.

Oh, and…

There really wasn’t a good place to put this, but hey, we’re hiring an Executive Director of National Programs to lead that national program I mentioned. Finding the right person is so important. We are especially looking for candidates whose background represents our students, who have experience scaling an educational program, and who can work well with partners at the school and district level. If you’re reading this, can you spread the word to your network? It’s a great job leading a growing new program!

BEAM 6: Designing a Curriculum

This is part of a sequence of posts developing a new project for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics called BEAM 6.  BEAM 6 will be a non-residential, four-week summer program for underserved 6th grade students in New York City.  You can find the other posts about its design here.


At BEAM 7 (a program many BEAM 6 students will attend the summer after 7th grade), we tend to throw students off the deep end when it comes to doing math.  I mean it: they come in and we teach them about proofs, and we have them solving MATHCOUNTS problems, and we have them learning number theory and combinatorics and even group theory… and a lot of them are kind-of still weak on fractions, y’know?

It varies by school, of course.  Not surprisingly, some schools tend to give us more prepared students, while others don’t.  BEAM 7 has had seventh graders (top of their class at school!) who were not comfortable multiplying negative numbers.

I’ve been asking myself what I wish our BEAM 7 students knew.  They’re held back constantly by foundational math knowledge.  They also need to learn how to look at a problem and focus on what it’s asking, rather than guessing at a solution mechanism.  Finally, I want them to have more skills in deductive reasoning and case analysis.  It’s a little bit crazy to be thrown into a proofs class without that!

In the end, there are five course tracks that I really want to work into the program.

  • Logic
  • Math Foundations
  • Math Team Training
  • Applied Math
  • Seminars

I want students to have choice, so each of these topic areas will have different courses within it.  During their summer, each student will take on course from each track.  The exception will be Seminars, where each will be independent (see below).

It’s a minor nightmare to fit all of these classes into a four-week program.  Right now, the best I can do is 10 hours of class time each, plus some homework time depending on the course.  So they have to be compact and get to the punch quite quickly.  Scheduling will be covered in detail in a future post, but lack of time is a huge concern.

Before I get to describing the course tracks, readers who know about BEAM 7’s courses will see right away that this is super different.  BEAM 7 is basically a playground for our faculty to develop all kinds of interesting math courses and then teach them.  These courses are much more structured and targeted.  Why?

The primary reason is simple: BEAM 6 has a very different goal.  BEAM 6’s main goal is to remedy specific gaps that students need to succeed both in BEAM 7 and in their future mathematical studies.  In contract, BEAM 7’s goal is to transition students to other programs for advanced study where they will have to do more abstract thinking.  Hence, BEAM 7 invites faculty to rock out in courses similar to what students will do at future programs.  In contrast, BEAM 6 is a laser aimed at skills and knowledge that students need.  BEAM 6 courses will be lots of fun, but they’ll also have much more concrete goals.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.  One big advantage of BEAM 6 is that I can develop a strong curriculum for students.  A second advantage is that it opens our program up to more potential instructors, because they do not need the same experience designing enrichment classes.  However, BEAM 6 is still open to those who want to create their own crazy classes through both the Seminars and Applied Math topic areas.

Great!  Let’s figure out what’s actually in the courses.

Continue reading “BEAM 6: Designing a Curriculum”

BEAM 6: Goals

This is part of a sequence of posts developing a new project for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics called BEAM 6.  BEAM 6 will be a non-residential, four-week summer program for underserved 6th grade students in New York City.  You can find the other posts about its design here.

In about seven months, there will be 100 sixth-grade students all ready to learn math.  Almost exclusively, their mathematics educations so far will be designed around memorizing procedures and passing tests.  We have four weeks to change their lives.  What should we do?

No pressure or anything.

It’s rare in education to get an opportunity to work with motivated, talented students with no outside requirements.  We can design the program that is best for them.  This is the first post developing BEAM 6, and so we will set down the program goals.

Goal: Teach Them to Think Deeply

If students leave the program and they have not learned about logical reasoning, I will feel exceptionally disappointed.  I want students to grasp ideas of deductive reasoning.  This might be my single biggest goal.

I also want to change the way they think about mathematics.  For many students, math problems are defined by the solution method.  “Oh, this is an addition problem.”  “Oh, this is a related rates problem.”  “Oh, this is a Pythagorean theorem problem.”  This thinking leads to oversimplification and memorizing procedures.  It makes it more difficult to solve multi-step problems.  Students should engage with the question, understand the problem independent of its solution, and accept or reject solution paths because they do or don’t solve the problem.

This leads to the broader question of mathematical communication.  For example, the equals sign.  Students often interpret the equals sign as asking a question.  In elementary school, it is always used as “2 + 5 = ?”.  By algebra, the question changes — “2x – 3 = 15” means “solve for x” — but the equals sign is still primarily used to express a question.  Students don’t realize that “25 + 7 = 32” is a statement that can be true or false; that the purpose of = is not to ask a question but rather to give a statement.  The result is a failure of both communication and conceptualization.

These goals are less mathematically sophisticated than BEAM 7’s goals.  This is in part because the students are younger.  It’s also to build synergy with BEAM 7.  Students often come out of BEAM 7 with a strong grounding in abstract mathematics but still well behind peers in school-based math.  For example, students often do well taking a number theory course at CTY or going to a program like MathPath, but do relatively poorly in a contest like MATHCOUNTS.  BEAM 6 can close that gap and set students on a path to deepening their facility with school-based math.

Goal: Help Them Love Math

People love math because it is beautiful; because it is thrilling to challenge yourself with a hard problem that you finally solve; and because it is interesting to see how it applies to the real world.  We must show students what math really is.  That it is not about memorization or following procedures.  That it is beautiful and creative and exciting.  A love of math will carry you far, and we should develop it in the students.

Goal: Develop Their Self-Identities

In my experience, self-identity drives a lot about a person.  More than just thinking something is “cool,” self-identity can push someone to pursue an interest; it can create resilience to failure; it can drive life decisions.  If we can develop self-identities in our students as scholars, and furthermore as scientists and mathematicians, they are much more likely to succeed on that path.

What contributes to developing self-identity?  Here are some thoughts:

  • Interest/passion for a topic.
  • A feeling of self-efficacy; confidence in your abilities.
  • Membership in a distinctive community.
  • Role models.
  • A sense of future (where will it take you?).

We should harness all of these within the program.  We have special expertise in creating a mathematical community.  To drive students’ further engagement, creating a very strong community will be essential.

Goal: Develop Independent Learners

A summer program cannot alone cover the mathematical education of all these students.  If they will be successful, they must continue to pursue learning after the summer is done.

Students should be connected with resources for further study, such as Art of Problem Solving.  They should get used to these tools during the summer and be encouraged to continue using them when they’re done so that they continue to get better.

Concluding Thoughts

These goals feel right.  They cover what I feel is very important to develop in young mathematicians.  However, they are not complete.  While program elements will be tied into these goals, as the program development continues we will also find new goals that we want to achieve.  These will be included below as updates to this post.

Planning a New Program

BEAM is receiving funding to develop a new program: a non-residential program in New York City that will reach students from a younger age, beginning the summer after 6th grade.  Students will learn mathematical reasoning, build basic mathematical skills, and become part of an intellectual community.

Now comes of the work of designing that program for a launch this summer.  I’m going to do that design here, on the blog, so that others can follow along with the process of creating a new program and see the ideas get developed and change over time.

To begin, I’ve created an outline of the major topics I plan to think through.  Each of these bullet points will become a link to a post.  Please note that both this post and all of the other posts in the series are likely to evolve over time.  They’re likely to get edited to reflect the final state of thinking as we move to launch.

Big Picture

Before the Summer

  • How is the program communicated to schools and students?
  • How are students selected for the program?
  • How will we hire staff?


Social Environment

  • How do we create a vibrant community?
  • What structures do we need to manage student behavior?

After the Summer

  • What, if any, additional support is provided to students?
  • How does this connect to the existing BEAM program?


The program will be known (for now) as BEAM 6, and all posts about it will be labeled as such.