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Math-Dunk Project: Summary

Concept: The Math-Dunk Project is designed as a summer program focusing primarily but not exclusively on male, African-American middle to high school students with the aim of improving their computational skills. What makes the concept special is that it uses a strong motivational tool currently existing within African American culture to increase academic performance.


Need: Second to Alaska Natives and reservation based Native Americans, African-American males have the lowest levels of academic achievement of any major group of Americans. 1

Rationale: Basketball occupies an iconic place in African-American culture. One of the major accomplishments for a basketball player, conferring higher peer-group status upon the achiever, is the ability to dunk the ball.

The goal of the program is raise participant math skills to diminish or eliminate the gap between participant achievement on standardized assessments and grade level. The project contains an implicit trade within its structure; participants who improve their leaping ability will gain status within their peer group. In order for them to maintain themselves on this path, there is the concurrent need to improve their math skills. The interaction between the project components will be accomplished in part by having some of the math, based on the data generated by the project itself. Student work on heights, weights, initial jumping ability and changes in these elements over the length of the project will give their calculation a real-world dimension that examples from a textbook, are usually not able to offer.

Method: Once a participating high school or middle school has been has been identified, social media & flyers will be handed out to those middle school students who will ideally form part of that coming fall’s 9th year class. Contact will be made with the parents/guardians of interested students and an on-going communication relationship will be established with them to keep them abreast of the enrollee’s progress within the project.

Informational relationships will be formed with the participants’ middle school mathematics teachers to assess pre-existing level of computational competency.  This link will be replicated, where possible with the students’ projected 9th year math instructors so that the math component of the project is in line with common core and instructor expectations.

Once these relationships are in place, it becomes possible to establish in some degree of detail a lesson plan/curriculum that can extend over the length of the project and prepare the students for their initial high school mathematics course.

Participants will be required to pass a weekly math test to maintain their enrollment in the project.  These tests will include materials that the students should have mastered in grades 6, 7, and/or 8. After student competencies have been identified, the tests will be somewhat customized to reflect varying starting levels of achievement. 

Budget: If the program is presented at a City of San Francisco recreation facility, no funding is required.

Outcomes: Assuming that standardized testing is available, it will be administered to measure mathematical achievement at a date close to the end of the project.  The project is expected to result in mean scores 1.645 standard deviations above what would be expected in the absence of the project. This would mean that there was a 90% chance that the project was effective in improving computational abilities. In non-statistical terms, it is projected that students who complete the project would gain about one-half year in skill level over what would otherwise be expected.




The Math-Dunk Pilot Project


The pilot project for Math-Dunk started on June 10, 2019 at the Hamilton Recreation Center. Due to the scarcity of gym space, the project was scheduled from 6:00 PM - 8:00 PM.  During this time period, it was still light so no participants had to go home in the dark.

Math-Dunk in its pilot stage has five enrollees, four Asian and one African-American. Though it was set-up to focus on the academically underachieving, the impact of imposing a fee as detailed below, was probably a major disincentive for potential low income participants.

In setting-up the project, one of the Park & Rec employees wanted to delay the project until the autumn of 2019. The project had always been envisioned as a summer program as doing it during the school year would put participants into a direct time conflict with their school homework. That person’s superior over-ruled them and Math-Dunk were able to go ahead during the summer of 2019.

Having lost the timing battle, the Park & Rec person was adamant about charging the participants a $192.00 fee. I was against this and offered to personally pay any participant fees as well as forego the offered compensation (approx. $20/hr), in order that Math-Dunk remain free. This offer was perhaps viewed as a threat to standard operating procedure move so the offer it was not taken up.

The Athletic Component

The exercise side represented the main lure for Math-Dunk.

A key piece of equipment was to be the jump measurement tool. Jump height measurement device. When ordered on the internet they looked very much alike. The least expensive one is virtually indistinguishable from one that was double the price.

The machine purchased,” Tandem Vertical Challenger - Stand-Alone Jump Measurement Tester Solo Volleyball Training Aid” turned out to be so poorly machined, and inadequately calibrated, such that it was difficult to detect slippage and attain accurate measurements. Eventually, the problem was detected and the machine was made functional through the addition of a couple of dollars in plumbing supplies.


Vertical Leap Improvement (July-August)

Participant   DOB      Height   Reach    Weight        Initial Jump      Final Jump     Vertical*

1. (SL)          2/18/06   5”1”      6’4”      88 lbs.         8’                      8’3”                 23”

2. (ZH)         9/18/04   5’5”       6‘10”    NA              8’6”                  8”7”                 21”

3. (AS)         7/16/05   5’5”       6’9”      125 lbs.       8’10”                9’1”                 28”

4. (JB)          5/9/05     6’1”       8’1”      155 lbs.       10’2”                10’5”               24”

5. (AC)         4/10/05   5’2”       6’7”      110 lbs.       8’4”                  8’5”                 23”

*Note: Vertical is the distance between the top of the reach when standing on the floor and the final jump height.

The participants that put the effort into (#1, 3, 4) it were able to improve their leaping ability 2”-3” between 7/15/19 - 8/7/19. Measurements taken prior to that point are not included because of the unreliability of the Tandem Vertical Challenger in its “out of the box” configuration. Participant #2 was not serious about goal attainmentand participant #5 was in attendance for half the classes.

If measured over the projected 10-11 week period, future participants should be able to gain 4” on their vertical. This is not an insubstantial gain.

On its next iteration, Math-Dunk will add more weight training in the form of squats to increase jumping ability. Although they are not usually associated with jumping ability, weight lifters (“1972 Olympic Weightlifters”  from 0:49 - 1:10) have substantial ability in this area.


The Academic Component

The main focus of Math-Dunk was the academic component rather than the athletic component.

The concept of Math-Dunk was to start in basketball and to then weave its way through the STEM areas utilizing the work of African-American scientists a narrative backbone from which computational aspects could be attached as was desired.

Prior to advent of the course, it was assumed that the participants would have a heterogeneous set of abilities and that many of them would be about two years below grade level. The initial step was to introduce a series of diagnostic quizzes taken respectively from 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade materials. The five participants were roughly a year or so apart in terms of computational skills and about a year or two ahead of where I projected enrollees to be.

The general instructional approach was to do things from a “bass-ackward” direction in that the applications sections that is usually at the bottom of any wiki article on a scientific process. The notion was to take the application that the student would be familiar with and use that to introduce the scientific concept behind it and the associated math.

The experience of the pilot project generally validated the approach but, the multi-ethnic nature of the enrollees, made the African-American focus less compelling than it might have been for a more predominantly black student population.  The participants were also more computationally skilled than anticipated so an on-the-fly approach to structuring the math components was required.

The notion was to start in basketball and wind the way through the STEM topics in the order of Biology-Chemistry-Physics & Computer Science, mirroring that of the traditional secondary school path in which those sciences are sequenced with an increasing degree of math rigor.

Topic areas that Math-Dunk introduced to the participants included;



•   Basketball Analytics - statistics                                             •   Supersoaker - physics

•   Chemical Element Symbols - chemistry                               •   The Basketball - geometry, chemistry

•   Gas Mask - chemistry                                                           •   The basketball court - geometry, chemistry

•   Hair Care - chemistry                                                            •   The Jump Shot - parabolas & quadratics  

•   Metric v. U.S. measurement - math                                       •   The Knee - biology           

•   NBA Payroll - Gini-coefficient - math                                     •   The Microphone - chemistry, physics

•   Neon - chemistry                                                                   •   Video Games - computer science history

•   Probability - math


Directions for the Future

Research by Leslie & Recht (1988), ( 2016/03/Effect -of-Prior-Knowledge-on-Good-and-Poor-Readers-Memory-of-Text.pdf), indicates that prior knowledge, implicitly a proxy for interest, has a significant positive impact on information retention.

One participant that I had difficulty connecting with showed a marked increase in interest when I started discussing quadratic equations and parabolas, because he could directly connect it to his attempt to improve his jump shot. Given that the age group studied and Leslie & Recht’s use of a sports framework is similar to Math-Dunk, perhaps basketball should be more of a focus of the topic areas than the initially envisioned biographical narrative.


A shift toward the physics of basketball would lead to a higher degree of mathematical rigor and this might depend on the ethnic mix of the enrollees.


In order to potentially strike a balance in the future, there will be an attempt to structure a high-low dual math track with the lower level being augmented by additional narrative material.

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