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Learner Podcast

Episode 32: Sparking Social Impact By Using Math to Inspire Young Minds

Author: Marcelle Hutchins

This episode features Omo Moses, founder of MathTalk, a community-based edtech startup that helps families explore the math around them. Moses has dedicated his life to showing young children and their parents that math is fun and that they should view it as a tool to effect change in the community 

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity) 

Nati Rodriguez [1:52] 

Can you tell us about MathTalk? What is it? And can you share some of the benefits around it? 

Omo Moses [2:00] 

So MathTalk grew out of my desire as a dad, to have fun with my kids learning math. And so, we began doing math while we were making breakfast, while we were out in the neighborhood riding trains at playgrounds. And it just felt like there’s such a rich opportunity to get kids turned on to all the math that they’re surrounded by. 

And part of the obstacle to that is having adults that feel confident and capable and are aware of both the opportunity and the importance of helping kids learn math in ways that are meaningful, and relevant to them. And so, as I began doing it with my own kids, I also began to think about, how you help other adults, whether it’s a parent, a teacher, or a caregiver – kind of turn their kids on to math and be kind of math coaches and math catalysts for the kids in their lives. And so, MathTalk grows out of that. And we’ve thought a lot about where kids frequent, where families frequent, and how those spaces represent kind of natural opportunities to explore and experience math. And then we’ve thought about how technology can help to promote that and increase the frequency of that. 

Nati Rodriguez [3:32] 

Thank you for sharing about your family and how it started with your students. You also have a significant background in math, education and experience. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how that informs some of your work, and this development of MathTalk and MathTrails? 

Omo Moses [3:50] 

The way I think of it, math has been like a family business. My mom and dad met in the 60s in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. And at that point, they were thinking about how the right to vote would enable people to access both educational opportunity, political opportunity, and economic opportunity. And so, my dad founded an organization called the Algebra Project in the early 80s. And so we did a lot of math at home, it wasn’t the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. But I knew math was important, it was something that I could be good at. My dad connected it to a broader social need. He talked about how kids learning math really could prepare them for higher education, which then could prepare them to play whatever role they wanted to play in society. And so, I’ve always thought of math as really a gateway to both individual opportunity; and then also just thinking about specific communities in the country where young people have been disenfranchised and are living in economically distressed conditions. Math can be a lever for opportunity for a community as a whole and thinking about how they can uplift themselves out of the social conditions that they find themselves in. And so, my dad came into our classroom when we were in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade and began teaching math to us and our peers. We worked with him to prepare for the Algebra One test as eighth graders, and so like the big goal was being able to take geometry in ninth grade. I saw how the school and community of parents rallied around this idea that all kids can successfully complete algebra in the eighth grade.  

My first job as early as high school as ninth grade, I was teaching other kids math during the summer. And through that experience, I saw the power of teaching and the power of peer-to-peer learning. And so, it was as valuable for me as a young person, being able to see that I had learned something, and I can share it with another young person in a way that’s meaningful. But also, it helped me build a different type of relationship with kids in my community. That also really stuck with me. And so, from high school through college, I spent a lot of time working in Algebra Project classrooms or programs, teaching other kids math. And so those two things kind of just carried with me, as I began thinking about who I wanted to become later in life. I ended up playing basketball in college, and when that ended, I wasn’t sure who I could be and what I could do. And the place that I could turn to was the Algebra Project. And I could turn to my dad and ask him if I could get a job working with him; and so, at that time, this was in the mid-90s. The Algebra Project had expanded nationally, and he brought the work back to Mississippi, which is really where I think he got his grounding and thinking about movement building and change.  

And so I asked him if I could work with him in Mississippi. I thought that I would spend a year down there, and then I’d figure it out, like, what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. And so, I founded an organization called the Young People’s Project with students in Mississippi, and that organization still exists, and it really centers on college and high school-aged students, providing math and STEM-based learning experiences. But part of what happened was, I spent about 20 years running that organization, I got burnt out. I had kids. And so, I was trying to figure out, well, what can I do that can help me make a little bit of money and continue the work that I‘m doing. And so, I shifted from teaching high school kids to teaching middle and elementary school kids, to thinking about how you work with the earliest ages of kids and parents to support math learning. And so that‘s been the journey. 

Nati Rodriguez [8:55] 

Thank you for sharing that. It seems like you’ve developed a lot of experience across all ages. I don’t have a lot of experience of working with early kids. I also mostly worked with high school. So, I’m curious if you can say more about MathTalk and MathTrails. Earlier, you mentioned bringing in technology to these spaces and these interactions between a young child and their parents or the adults around them. What does that look like? 

Omo Moses [9:25] 

We’ve developed a couple of products; the first product, we call it a MathTrail. The idea is identifying locations or points of interest in a neighborhood or community and helping to bring math to life in that location. And connecting those locations in ways that are meaningful and fun for families. And so, we’ve developed about 15 MathTrails, and the majority of them are in Massachusetts. We have some in Georgia. We’re developing one in California right now, and then Chicago. And part of the way I think about it is that you’re connecting art and play in the community in ways that help kids and help parents and families engage with math in their neighborhood. That’s really been successful.  

One of the things that we’ve also done is just think about ways in which technology can help to promote these locations, these points of interests and neighborhoods; and then also deepen and expand the learning that can take place. We’ve developed a platform called, which is an early-stage prototype that is a companion to the MathTrail. And it provides a curriculum and activities and games that kids, families, and teachers can utilize both on the trail but also anywhere else as well.  

The other thing that we’ve done is we’ve looked at how we can use augmented reality, specifically to help people see what’s already there and play with what’s in their environment in meaningful ways. And so, we’ve created an app called Measure Everything; and the first iteration of that app is just really exploring what if a kid could measure a field of elephants, or whales, or centipedes, or things that, again, are relevant to them, but helps provide a visual impression, and a different sense of what it means to be tall or long or wide or short. It‘s been a successful app and we’ve really used it to think about ways in which we can get kids out in their neighborhood, exploring their environment, and using augmented reality to see what’s there and interact with what’s there in unique ways that support learning now. 

Nati Rodriguez [12:45] 

And what age groups does this target 

Omo Moses [12:47] 

Our sweet spot is probably four to eight. But we want to promote this with parents that have kids, one or two years old. As a parent, you can point to things, you can use math vocabulary that helps kids at a very early age begin to see these things that can be mathematized; like in their neighborhood and in their lives. And so, as soon as possible, we want to support parents promoting this with their kids. 

Nati Rodriguez [13:27] 

I think about math anxiety, and people being a little resistant to interacting with math because they never felt good at it. So how do you engage parents to feel confident to interact with an app? Or engage in these experiences with their child without bringing that up in them? 

Omo Moses [13:52] 

It’s a great question, and I think that that is the challenge. Our approach is, again, find the fun; like, what’s fun, how can math be something that you enjoy doing with your kids. And so, we think about games as an entry point to having a positive math experience. Also, we want parents to see math as something they already have some capacity and skills aroundAt the earliest ages, it’s about beginning a conversation and talking about things in ways that are familiar to you as a parent, and as an adult. It’s not about a right or wrong answer. It’s about having a conversation with your kid. And so, you have to start with where people are, what they’re comfortable withFor me, like, I love to play basketball, and so I played a lot of basketball with my kid; and so, we learn math on the basketball court. If you like to cook – cook with your kids, or use that as an opportunity to talk about math and explore math. Math is in everything we do. And so the challenge becomes, how do you help parents begin to see the math beyond what they’re immediately comfortable with, and what’s immediately familiar to them? But if you start with what’s familiar with what they’re comfortable with, it becomes a foundation for expanding the types of conversations and interactions they can have with their kids.  

Nati Rodriguez [15:37] 

Can you paint a picture of what that looks like when a parent and a child are interacting with the app or experiencing a MathTrail?  

Omo Moses [15:47] 

On a MathTrail, we have signage; and the signage has prompts, and one of our installations is a giant number line. And so basically, we’ve taken this number line and something familiar in the classroom and put it on the sidewalk. So, some of the activities like on the number line involve noticing and observations. And the way that number line is painted, it has a lot of different patterns. And one of the prompts is just what do you notice and wonder about this line? And you have a conversation about it. Another area is kids like to move. And so, how far can you jump on the number line? And so, getting kids to jump, getting parents to jump; and how are they going to quantify that and come up with a distance for that? There are a lot of different examples of that installation. We’ve also taken Venn diagrams, which is a technical term, but we’ve taken circles and connected them. And so, we look at this idea of you, me, and we – you have a section where one person can stand in and talk and think about kind of things that maybe they all have the same color on, and maybe there’s a color that they don’t have on or something like that. So, looking at similarities, differences, things of that nature, and having a conversation about that. So, we’ve tried to introduce things that involve more than one person. 

Nati Rodriguez [17:41] 

Have there been any studies that track students over time and show how when they come into the classroom in a more formal math setting; that they are able to understand these conceptual foundational relationships in math because of their experience with MathTalk.  

Omo Moses [18:00]  

We haven’t had formal studies; we’ve done some work with the University of Chicago, looking at the early prototypes and how they promoted math talk. We’ve also had an NSF grant and worked with a team out of BU to look at how the MathTrails and the installations promoted conversations, and whether or not those conversations were related to the math that we saw embedded in the installation. The parents and kids might see something else. But all of those things demonstrated that both installations and measure everything were promoting positive math interactions and conversations. And so, we’ve focused on that, particularly at the earliest ages. My theory is that – and there’s also a lot of research around it – if you can get parents and kids having conversations around math, that it impacts the kids in more formal settings, and the development of specific skills, as well as development of a positive math identity, which I think impacts how they receive math when they are learning it in a more formal setting. 

Nati Rodriguez [19:30] 

That’s great. What’s next for MathTalk 

Omo Moses [19:33] 

I think the next stage is how do we take what we’re learning and develop products that can be pushed out to a much wider audience 

Nati Rodriguez [19:42] 

It sounds like you’re continuing the work and seeing results and hoping to develop that narrative. And I’m curious if this model could be effective for older students. There’s a lot in the headlines around math test scores, and they get tested much later than the kids that you’re working with. But how could this work with older students, these ideas of learning in real-time, in the community in an immersive experience, in the physical learning spaces? Is that something considered down the line? 

Omo Moses [20:18] 

Absolutely. Right now, we’re developing the MathTrails; even though we’re starting with younger kids, we want them to be a resource for elementary and eventually middle school kids. And so, we see a natural application there. With the MathTrails, when you are mathematized; when you take a picture of a set of steps in your community, there are a lot of different ways to look at those steps. So, for a younger kid, it could just be, how many steps are there? But if you want to think about other math, you could talk about – “how many different ways you can walk up those steps?” – to think about things that are a little more advanced. With all of these locations, you can think about how it’s an opportunity for an elementary school kid to connect with it, a middle school kid or a high school kid   I think there are different layers of math that are embedded that are relevant to different age groups. And so, there are a lot of opportunities for learning and for leadership with older kids in particular.  

Nati Rodriguez [21:43] 

I love the idea of peer-to-peer learning and intergenerational learning with the older adults that are working with the grandchildren, or their own children. So that’s, that’s fantastic. I wish there were more of those opportunities in even formal settings of teaching. 

I’m curious, given your extensive experience across age groups and grade levels, what do you think is the biggest challenge in our math education today? 

Omo Moses [22:18] 

I think it’s making it relevant. There are so many different ways to see something; I think math is one of those thingsMy daughter sees it one way, my son sees it another way, and I might see it another way. But math continues to be put in a straitjacket. And adults need to help kids have conversations about how they see it and how they understand it versus, thinking about how you’re going to direct a kid to understand it in a particular way. And so, I think it just requires a certain level of curiosity and flexibility to engage students in that way. And a level of confidence in your own math and understanding of math, to be able to try to see it outside of the way you see it, particularly as you’re teaching. And part of what that will enable is the kids and the students to take ownership over math. This is something that is rooted in how you see and understand the world around you, and how you apply that to these more standardized and formalized ideas. That’s how I learned and experienced it through the Algebra Project. It was trying to situate math within a kid’s point of view; so how do you situate it within my point of view, and within kind of the things that I see and the things that are important to me? And then how do we connect that to these more kind of structural and symbolic ideas that people naturally associate with learning math?  

Nati Rodriguez [24:17] 

Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience? 

Omo Moses [24:25] 

Be on the lookout for MathTrails, 2.0, and the next iteration of the Measure Everything app. We’re just super excited to create resources and products that kids and families can get excited about and utilize to have a different relationship with math. We’d love to stay connected and to hear what people think about what we’re developing. 

  • MathTalk 
  • MathTrails 
  • Algebra Project 
  • Technology  
  • The Young People’s Project


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