By Kathy Chouteau
A nonprofit’s work with youth at Richmond’s Crescent Park apartments has blossomed into a powerful educational program spotlighted in a short film currently entered into the Houston Cinema Arts Festival and other film fests. The film, “A Space for Girls,” runs 5 minutes and 23 seconds and recounts the unlikely advent of Richmond-based nonprofit Calculus Roundtable’s Girls Math Club program, the idea for which was sparked by a local girl named Maria.
The nonprofit, which aims to increase math and science skills for students, particularly students of color, was initially invited by the Houston Cinema Arts Festival organizers to enter its short films competition. The catch? At least 10 percent of the footage had to come from NASA and its archives.
Rising to the challenge was Calculus Roundtable’s 2021-22 Diversity in STEM Fellow Samara Tana. The Bay Area native, who is studying film at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, scoured over a universe of NASA archives, ultimately using 80 images and clips in directing A Space for Girls.
The film was submitted to the Houston Cinema Arts Festival in two categories: “Best Educational Film on Space and Science” and “Film That Best Depicts Unity and Inclusion in Science.” Currently, the nonprofit is awaiting word if its film will advance to the screening portion of the competition in November, at which point Academy Award® nominee Richard Linklater will review the finalists and award first, second and third place prizes.
A Space for Girls is also under consideration for the SCOOP Film Festival in Portland, the New York Indie Shorts Awards, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, per Tana, who said that it was also recently screened at the Oakland International Film Festival.
In Tana’s words, A Space for Girls is “a film that connects a small community in the Bay Area and Richmond to the outside world and exposes people who might not have a chance to dream big to give them that opportunity.” She said that the film “also shows the outside world what this particular community is like.”
“I cried the first five times I watched it,” remarked Calculus Roundtable Executive Director Jim Hollis about A Space for Girls, applauding Tana’s work. “The program that we put together to help that little girl is now being filmed by an older girl who we’re helping [through a fellowship]…it was just sort of like, ‘oh, this is good,’” he said about the experience.
Hollis said the film is the story of the girls he worked with at Crescent Park, initially through Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. Maria, a 9th grade participant, was initially very engaged in and enthusiastic about the math and science programming. That is, until some 9th grade boys entered the program at the park and, according to Hollis, Maria was suddenly like, “Oh, this is stupid.”
While it was sad for Hollis to see Maria’s response to peer pressure, the experience did help plant the seed for what would eventually become Calculus Roundtable’s Girls Math Club program. The nonprofit asked Maria, “What do you like to do?” They had her look at their programs and she helped design a Space Camp program that she was interested in. Per Hollis, that’s where the “germination of the idea” for the Girls Math Club originated from—as well as the basis for the film.
“It’s sort of a homework club and they do different math activities,” said Hollis about the program for girls ranging from 3rd to 12th grade in-and-beyond Richmond. “It’s all built on what the women in the program think would work for the girls…what motivated them in math.” These days the program is being offered locally at schools including Nystrom Elementary—where many of Calculus Roundtable’s programs are piloted; Peres Elementary; Dejean Middle School (coming up); and Helms Middle School in San Pablo, to name a few.
“The purpose is really to talk about math and science to them conversationally so they’re comfortable with talking about [it] with each other, Hollis added re: the program. Later he said that they accomplish this goal by “finding what’s fun and engaging for them and finding the math and science within it.”
Calculus Roundtable’s Girls Math Club—with some visionary help from Maria at Crescent Park—arose from the organization’s early childhood education work in Richmond. Such work encompasses its coding program “Think Like a Video Game Designer;” launched at the Chevron Richmond-funded Fab Lab at Kennedy High School, the program brings video game companies into Richmond to work with local kids, while also taking kids out to visit the companies.
“Chevron has been really vital supporting early STEM enrichment,” said Hollis, underscoring that the company’s support for their organization has enabled them to take subjects like coding to a lower grade level. “We’re doing coding at third and fourth grade, sometimes in Spanish,” something that is crucial toward their mission. Without introducing these subjects like coding or physics earlier on, some of the students of color they are trying to reach may not qualify for these classes at the high school level.
Hollis also said that Chevron Richmond’s support has “sparked our growth, exponentially,” pointing to support they received from the company the year prior to the pandemic enabling them to expand to more WCCUSD schools and also take their programs online.
“We turned everything online in like three days, and all of our programs are still up and running,” said Hollis about the early pandemic days. Ultimately, taking their programs online greatly expanded their reach, supporting local schools with their online instruction in the process. “None of that would have happened without Chevron.” As a token of their appreciation, Calculus Roundtable acknowledged Chevron Richmond in A Space for Girls’ film credits.
Today, this expanded reach has translated into 4th-8th grade classroom teachers and individual children being able to utilize Calculus Roundtable’s “STEM Broadcasting Network,” an online space where they can engage in STEM-based classes and activities. Subjects span the gamut from Coding classes for 4th graders to Sports Math for 7th graders to Biomed classes for middle schoolers to Rollercoaster Building for high schoolers. See a demo of the network here.
In Richmond, the nonprofit also works with the WCCUSD’s Mafanikio Academic Coaching Program (mafanikio means “achievement” in Swahili), for which they’re teaching Coding and “working with teachers and volunteers around equity-based instruction,” said Hollis.
So what’s up next for Calculus Roundtable? As it awaits word on A Space for Girls’ performance at various film fests, it’s rolling out another Coding offering for students in Richmond and San Pablo. The nonprofit—which is a Google incubator—is gearing up to bring in a vice president at Google to teach UX (user experience) to students online at Kennedy High, Dejean Middle School and Helms Middle School. Calculus Roundtable is piloting the class this fall and hopes to go “full swing in the spring,” per Hollis, who said students completing the instruction will earn the same certificates that Google seeks in their entry-level employees.