Jason majored in mathematics at the University of Chicago with plans of becoming a mathematician but got sidetracked into launching technology startups and building high-frequency trading systems. Not wanting to relocate to San Francisco, he infamously turned down the CTO position at Uber but instead opting to work as a consultant, designed and developed much of the company's original real-time technology, their global "air traffic control" and other foundational technologies. Jason is co-host of the podcast, Techzing, and coined the phrase, ‘Luck Surface Area.’ Jason is the big idea guy at Math Academy, and while he is involved in all aspects of the company, focuses mostly on the technology.
Sandy has recently left the nonprofit world after spending 20 years on boards focusing on governance, management and fundraising to devote full time to Math Academy. She has held leadership positions and chaired large event fundraisers, bringing in well over two million dollars, for the Junior League of Pasadena, Young & Healthy, National Charity League and Pasadena Educational Foundation. Sandy got her undergraduate degree in Economics from the University of Chicago and has always loved math. Together they have three busy kids, the oldest and youngest have gone through the Math Academy program. Sandy pretty much keeps all the plates spinning around here except tech and curriculum. In fact, if you send any email to Math Academy, chances are you’ll get a response directly back from Sandy.
Jason and Sandy first met at the University of Chicago during Sandy’s prospie weekend (although this had no influence whatsoever on her decision to attend!). Fast forward many years later, and their oldest, when he was in 4th grade, made the school’s math team. The teacher was aware that Jason and Sandy had some knowledge and interest in math and so they were duly voluntold to coach the math team. They were handed a class list, a foot-tall stack of worksheets, a large bag of Jolly Ranchers, and absolutely no instructions whatsoever. Thus began their journey teaching math to kids. True story.
Armed only with their wits and the aforementioned implements of math success, Jason and Sandy walked into the classroom. As they were getting to know the kids and how much math they understood, Jason in particular was surprised at the math concepts they didn’t yet know. Even though it was beyond the scope of the math competition itself, Jason was compelled to, “just let me teach this to you real quick.”
Thousands of hours of research was done to discover what makes kids, and people, learn things. Really learn. Actual peer-reviewed cognitive science-based proven pedagogy. And this is what they applied to the kids in the classroom. Active learning, spaced repetition, mixed review, layering, automaticity, are all the concepts that were first put into practice here. Also, Jason and Sandy’s experience as athletes influenced their teaching style. Nobody learns to play basketball by listening to somebody telling them how to dribble a ball for an hour. Give them a three-minute demonstration and then hand them a ball. In this case, give them a couple of quick explanations of how exponents work and hand them a colored whiteboard marker and have them start doing the problems themselves.
Throughout that first year, with Jason’s, “Wait, you don’t know this?” and the kids’ insatiable curiosity, they were able to get through and pass the end-of-year 5th grade final exam. So, Jason and Sandy made a deal with the school to pull the kids out of their math class a few days a week to see how far they could go.
Jason just decided to jump in headfirst, throw caution and all reason to the wind, began teaching them Algebra. Throughout 5th grade, their methods refined, and through trial and error and more research, decided that they had found some kind of lightning in a bottle. It seemed as the more the kids learned, the more they were able to learn, and the more they wanted to learn. It was an extremely productive cycle. About halfway through the year, they began to ask, “What’s the highest math?” Jason would reply, “Well, there really is no highest math, but for your purposes, let’s say it’s Calculus.” “When are we going to learn Calculus?” They would literally ask this every day. Finally, near the end of the year, Jason gave in and “Today is the day.” They took to it like a fish to water.
Jason and Sandy knew that at some point they were going to have to come clean about the fact they were teaching Calculus to 5th graders successfully. Sandy, through the non-profit work that she had been doing, had many connections in the school district and the community. Turns out, one of them was the Superintendent. Who just happened to be an ex-math teacher himself. Sometimes you get lucky. He was really intrigued by what Jason and Sandy told him about the kids and promised to stop by the classroom. But then… crickets. Until the very last day of school when Jason and Sandy had planned a pizza and ice cream party for the kids. They got word that the Big Boss would be coming by for a demo! The kids came screaming into the room lining up for their pizza when Jason told them they had to go back and get their notebooks and pencils because they had to put on a math show that day instead. Aw, man! But, they were champs. The Supt’s jaw was on the floor as these kids excitedly applied derivatives and integrals on the whiteboards with their colored markers. With the pizza and ice cream sitting uneaten in the back of the room.
Math Academy was officially born.
As these kids entered middle school and Jason and Sandy began to work with the district to develop a pilot to have more kids enter the Math Academy program, two things became glaringly apparent. One, kids will be kids and, two, there’s a lot of red tape in public education.
The first problem was relatively easy to deal with. Jason got so sick and tired of hearing all the excuses of kids not doing their homework: forgetting to do their homework, forgetting how to do their homework, forgetting a pencil to do their homework. Because he thinks software can solve all the world’s problems, Jason set out the build an online program where the kids could review the material and do their homework on and also remove the tedious burden of having to grade each and every homework assignment in a timely manner.
The second problem took many years of extraordinary creative problem solving, force of will and productive partnerships with the district, the Pasadena Educational Foundation and the Pasadena Community Foundation. Since nobody ever accused Jason or Sandy of being weak-willed or giving up on anything they thought worthwhile, the Pasadena School District Math Academy began to take shape and become fully funded and integrated within PUSD. They were extremely fortunate in finding like-minded partners in the district and community willing to find outside-the-box solutions and create a program that fully met both district and state standards requirements. But, since this story is about the software, let’s leave the school program and just say that it continues to be a self-sustaining success, the students still do use the same software as the fully-online program, and it has always been an important proving ground for beta testing.
Students wanting to enter the school program at a point other than the regular beginning of the school year, for various reasons, created an interesting challenge. It was important to allow all students the opportunity to have access to this advanced math program, and the online nature of the software allowed MA to be able to provide that. But Jason was soon overwhelmed with manually creating assignments for students who were all at different levels, going at different speeds. It was time to take the software to the next level and so he furiously began to create what affectionately began to be called the “automator-inator.”
This was really a turning point in the development of the software as it changed from just a homework assignment system to a fully independent math learning platform. Combined with the onset of the Covid pandemic which forced everything online full-time, the development of tools to make the system more efficient and even more standalone accelerated. Another consequence of the pandemic was it put an end to Jason’s time teaching in the classroom and allowed him that much more time to create and improve features of the software. Jason and Sandy also felt it was time to expand the core team to delegate some of the curriculum creation responsibilities to build and add courses and also an algorithm specialist to incorporate such functionality as the knowledge graph and the cognitive learning strategies which make the system so effective. A short time later, the team came together to put together a successful application for full accreditation with the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association for Schools and Colleges (WASC).
Which brings our story around to today. The core team is extremely small, but effective. The system is still in Beta, although fully functional. Jason and Sandy, and the team, work every day to improve system features and customer communication- it’s slow going, but steady. There are still big ideas to be incorporated, information to be shared, and whiteboards full of to-do items. They’ve been surprised but thrilled to respond to exactly what customers need, such as adult students needing to start over, or pausing subscriptions for a short time. When they are able to come up for air, everyone is extremely proud of what they’ve created and excited for the future. They celebrate and are grateful for each and every new student who joins the Beta group. And, yes, I wrote this- Sandy.