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Straight Up Conversation: Math Guru Richard Rusczyk

Richard Rusczyk is the founder of the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), a math curriculum and online learning community that supports students who excel in math. In the early 1990s, Richard started AoPS as a book series; it has grown into a 300,000-member online community with classes, video lessons, and an adaptive learning system. AoPS is also the go-to trainer for America's Math Olympiad participants. I recently had a chance to chat with Richard about AoPS, how it works, and the effort to extend its reach to new kids.

Rick Hess: First off, what exactly is the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS)?

Richard Rusczyk: AoPS develops educational resources for eager math students, including textbooks, an online school, in-person learning centers, and a constellation of online applications. We build the tools we wish we'd had when we were students.

RH: When did AoPS begin? Where did the idea come from, and how did you wind up getting started?

RR: As I was finishing college, back in 1993 to '94, I co-wrote a two-volume series, The Art of Problem Solving, for students preparing for math competitions. These texts are probably still the most widely used math contest prep books. I left grad school after a couple months because I wanted to teach high school. Then I learned how hard teaching is! It's even harder when you're 22 and look 13. I left teaching after a semester and traded bonds for a while. Then the internet came along, and I realized I could build a school online and let selection bias draw the students I could best serve: those who thirst for a greater challenge than they're finding in their classrooms. We launched artofproblemsolving.com in 2003 and expanded from contest preparation to a full math curriculum.

RH: When a student participates in AoPS, what does that involve?

RR: It depends on which slice of AoPS the student is using. Students learn in many different ways, so we deliver our materials through a variety of media: textbooks, an adaptive learning system, videos, and an online community. We weave these together in our online school, though each can be used individually—and several are free. In the online school—which most students take in addition to their regular math classes—students meet weekly for a 75- to 120-minute conversation with instructors. Between classes, they read textbooks, watch videos, collaborate with instructors and other students in our online community, and tackle sets of difficult problems. Some of the problems require writing complete solutions on which students receive feedback on the accuracy and presentation of their work. Most students in the online school are taking math classes in their regular school in addition to ours; however, some students are able to replace to their school classes with ours. Our school is accredited, and we can provide grades and a transcript to students who need them.

RH: This is really striking. We hear a lot about gamification, video elements, and interactive technology, but it sounds like what you're describing is old school, and then some. Is that right? Does this really work? And do students actually enjoy it?

RR: We have those modern elements—gamification, video, and our real-time classes are extremely interactive because all the students can "talk" at any time. But the classroom is text-and-image only; you have to experience it to appreciate why we don't use video and audio. The key part of the instruction comes from students solving hard problems themselves, which is the main old-school component. The online school works for some students. Nothing works for all students, so we deliver our material through multiple avenues. But many students keep coming back far past the age where they can say "no" to their parents. One mother recently told me that when she needs to get her son's attention, she takes his AoPS Precalculus book away from him, and parents proudly send us pictures of their children's creations celebrating their favorite Beast Academy characters from our elementary school curriculum.

RH: How do students get involved in AoPS?

RR: They or their parents find us. We have strong word-of-mouth in the communities we serve. If you have a math-focused child and start asking around online for suggestions for her, you'll hear about us.

RH: How many students do you serve, and who are they?

RR: This year, we expect over 15,000 in our online school and over 3,000 in our in-person learning centers. Our online community has over 300,000 members, about half of whom are international. Our online learning system for middle school is nearing 100 million trials. While most students in our earliest classes are 10 or 11, we have some as young as 7 or 8. That age will get younger this summer when we launch Beast Academy Online, our online learning system for elementary school. The students range through high school.

Most of our students have high interest and ability in math. At the very high end of the ability scale, the six members of the US team that won the 2015 International Math Olympiad—for the first time in over two decades—collectively enrolled in over 40 AoPS classes. We don't collect data on income or race, but anecdotally speaking, many of our students have parents in math- or science-related fields, and probably most are in the top half of the income distribution. Many of our students' parents are immigrants who can credit their own interest and ability in mathematics with allowing them to come to this country.

RH: Is there any alignment to curriculum or standards throughout AoPS? Can what students are doing on your platform help them in their math courses?

RR: While we reviewed various standards, we didn't adhere precisely to any of them. The standards, like most of our K-12 education system, by necessity must target mathematical literacy, not mastery—they ensure that students reach a certain baseline level of understanding. AoPS' target is different, it's that of universities: the mastery required to be a STEM professional. Students who work through our curriculum usually find themselves extremely well-prepared for their regular school classes. They're also far less likely to be shell-shocked when they take math or science classes in college, which is where we first see the gap between literacy- and mastery-focused educations as legions of students leave STEM-related majors. Those students may have notched high scores on their AP exams, but they hadn't ever operated at the level they were asked to in their first university math and science classes, or at the level they'd need for internationally competitive careers.

RH: Can you talk a bit about the teaching side of all this? Who are the instructors? How do you find them and train them? How much time to they give to this? And how much are they paid?

RR: Some of our instructors are university professors or high-school teachers. Some are grad students at schools like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. Some are professionals in software development or the financial industry. Some are on a break from their careers as they raise families. Teaching at AoPS allows them to share their love of math with eager students. We provide the students—we've essentially created a two-sided market where the teachers and students draw each other. Each course requires 3 to 5 hours per week of the teacher's time, with their pay varying by course and the range of roles they fill for their courses.

RH: And what's the price to enroll in AoPS?

RR: Many of our online resources are free, but the online school has per-course tuition. Each course runs 12 to 25 weeks, and costs 20 to 25 dollars per week. This summer we'll launch a subscription-based service for elementary school, which will be around 100 dollars a year, and considerably less for those purchasing the elementary school books at the same time.

RH: What do we know about how well AoPS works? What kind of evidence do you look at when assessing your impact?

RR: All of our evidence is anecdotal. Performing a randomized controlled trial would be pretty difficult for us. Probably the strongest evidence is our continued growth, particularly considering our limited focus on marketing to date. We can point to contest results, but most of our students are not coming to us for contests. As a sign of our reach among top students, we recently learned that the 2018 MIT admit class circulated a spreadsheet to share social media usernames. The spreadsheet had 5 columns for each student: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and AoPS.

RH: Now, I understand you all are in the midst of efforts to expand the population that AoPS is serving. Can you talk a little about what that involves and how it's going?

RR: We started a non-profit organization, the AoPS Initiative, whose Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM) program serves high-potential students in underserved communities in New York City and Los Angeles. BEAM starts with middle-school summer programs and provides support during the school year through high school. Even though BEAM has been around for 7 years, it's still too early to tell how well we're achieving our goal of producing more STEM professionals from underserved communities. Some of our students have earned admissions to New York's highly selective math and science schools, which is an early indicator of progress.

Meanwhile, our company invited 40 third-graders from similar communities into our AoPS Academy learning center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, this year through a STEM Talent Pipeline of the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation. We're only in the first year of this Academy program. The students on average are holding their own, and some are excelling, but it's way too early to claim success.

RH: What was the impetus for this effort?

RR: I believe the gap between the top well-connected students and the top disconnected students has grown tremendously in the last ten to 15 years. Moreover, AoPS bears some responsibility for the growth of that gap: The connected students have leapt due to programs like ours. This realization spurred the start of BEAM. However, we have found that while BEAM's middle-school students are just as dialed-in and excited about math as the students we work with online, they are years behind the AoPS online students in their mathematical understanding. We can close that gap somewhat when starting in middle school, but we're looking for ways to reach the students earlier. When the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation learned of our AoPS Academy plans in their area, they asked to be our pilot program in that effort.

The AoPS Academy STEM Talent Pipeline is supported largely by AoPS with some support from the Montgomery Blair HS Magnet Foundation. The AoPS Initiative's BEAM programs are supported by a variety individual and institutional donors. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is the largest BEAM supporter and is responsible for our expansion to Los Angeles this year.

RH: And final question: In more than two decades of doing this, what are a couple things you've learned along the way that surprised, frustrated, or delighted you?

RR: We're coming to appreciate the limits of online education. As a "dot-com" guy, I'm supposed to say that online education will be revolutionary for everyone. I don't think that's true. It works fantastically for some students, but for many students, education is a fundamentally human problem, which will require human solutions. This is why we've started our AoPS Academy learning centers, and in coming years will explore partnerships with schools to learn how best to deploy our work in a traditional school settings. Meanwhile, for those students for whom online education shines, we are starting to partner with schools and school systems to provide avenues to allow appropriate students to take their math classes from us rather than in a traditional classroom.

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