University News

Math literacy startup makes competition finals

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

NBA Math Hoops, a startup developed by Khalil Fuller ’15 to promote math literacy in inner-city schools, has made it to the final round of MassChallenge, a global startup competition that awards between $50,000 and $100,000 to its winners each year. Out of an original pool of 1,200 applicants, Math Hoops was selected as one of 125 finalists and is in the top 26 in the Social Impact category. The 15 winners – who will split a cash prize of $1 million – will be announced Oct. 23 at a public gala in Boston.

NBA Math Hoops, which grew out of an initiative by the Providence-based education advocacy organization Big Picture Learning, will launch nationally in two weeks and will reach 15,000 students in school and afterschool programs, Fuller said. 


Development of Math Hoops

Fuller is taking this year off from Brown to devote his time to developing NBA Math Hoops, a social project aimed at improving young students’ math literacy through an interactive game.

 “We’ve partnered with the (National Basketball Association) and created a supplemental math curriculum that is centered around a math basketball board game,” Fuller said. “We want to harness the power of the NBA to make math fun, engaging and culturally relevant.”

Bill Daugherty, a board member for Big Picture Learning, said he and some of his coworkers originally developed the idea for the program, noting the need for improving math skills in schools. 

“I saw the power that the NBA could have over at-risk teenagers,” Daugherty said. “Then Khalil came in and just brought his vision and our vision to fruition in a way that we all found was incredibly impactful.”

Fuller received a C.V. Starr Fellowship for Entrepreneurship to help develop the program. The fellowship is designed to provide support and resources to undergraduates developing a social venture in order to transform ideas into action, according to its website. 

NBA Math Hoops is a perfect example of “appropriate technology,” said Alan Harlam, director of social entrepreneurship. “NBA Math Hoops is culturally appropriate for kids who are failing in math in inner cities. It speaks the language of basketball to the kids who idolize it,” he said.

Fuller ran a pilot study in 2010 assessing the effect of NBA Math Hoops in seven different schools. 

Students’ math scores improved 51 percent only six weeks after the program’s implementation, Fuller said, adding that students’ enthusiasm for math also increased during the time period.

NBA Math Hoops’ national launch coordinates with the commencement of the NBA season, Fuller said. 


The MassChallenge competition

“(Fuller) is doing amazing stuff,” said Akhil Nigam, founder and president of MassChallenge. “People are really impressed by the scale of his vision. He’s trying to bring math literacy to inner-city kids throughout the nation, and I think math education and literacy is one of the gaps that is missing in today’s push for educational improvement.” 

MassChallenge helps startup companies get off the ground through its competition and an accelerator program. Since MassChallenge was created three years ago, companies it has supported have raised more than $240 million in outside capital. One company, Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, a medicinal drug endeavor, is working on developing a drug targeting degenerative blindness in children and young adults. MassChallenge has even seen a company that has created a portable solution for toilets. 

“One of the great things about MassChallenge is the diversity of ideas we get as well as the diversity of problems we encounter,” Nigam said, adding that MassChallenge looks for high-growth companies, as well as passionate people who are looking to positively affect the world.


Entrepreneurship at Brown

While he was a first-year, Fuller’s drive and ambition was just as apparent as it is today. Fuller took ENGN 1930Q: “Social Entrepreneurship,” a class taken mainly by juniors and seniors.

“His teammates were very glad to have him on board,” said Harlam, who taught the class. But perhaps what separates Fuller from other successful entrepreneurs, Harlam said, is his humility. “Khalil’s driven,” Harlam said. “When he sets a goal, he’s about as driven towards the goal as anyone I’ve ever met.”

Fuller received an Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship this past year, becoming the youngest Echoing Green Fellow in the program’s 25-year history. 

Fuller said he appreciates the freedom the open curriculum at Brown has afforded him. “I can piece together education classes with policy classes with entrepreneurial classes. I can really bring everything together to create a curriculum that is closely related to my exact specific and detailed interests,” Fuller said.

The entrepreneurial scene on campus is incredibly active and vibrant, Harlam said. 

Daugherty said he has worked with approximately 10 Brown entrepreneurial students over the past 5 years through Big Picture Learning and has witnessed much success.  

When Daugherty heard that Fuller was planning to take a year off from school to fully devote his efforts to NBA Math Hoops, he was initially concerned with whether or not this was the best choice for Fuller. But Daugherty’s preliminary skepticism quickly abated due to the support Brown provides.  

Students like Fuller interested in jumpstarting an idea should “create a constellation of expertise for all aspects of the program you’re designing,” Harlam said. 

Fuller said he hopes to see NBA Math Hoops thrive and continue to have a positive impact for years to come. 

“Success for me would look like this: I wan
t a teacher to be able to walk into their classroom and say, ‘Listen up kids, if you don’t behave today, we won’t get to play NBA Math Hoops,'” Fuller said. Fuller said he strongly believes in the power of sports to improve education and envisions translating this into a national initiative in tandem with other professional sports.

“Seeing kids smiling in their math class is the best,” Fuller said.

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