In a recent study, University of Chicago researchers found that ‘math anxiety’ is a global phenomenon and directly affects performance of students. With the rise of STEM-related careers, this math anxiety might hold back students from elementary to high school from pursuing high-paying, in-demand jobs in the technology industry.
Morehouse College graduate Marcus Blackwell, Jr. grew up with a math phobia, not just because of subject itself, but because of the way that it was taught to him.
“I tell everybody, that wasn’t an excuse to bring home bad grades, so I had to figure out and get creative around how I can to fix this issue that I had with math. What I realized is that playing the piano is, in fact, understanding math. And once I made that connection, that really changed my confidence about math,” says Blackwell.
Blackwell had been playing piano since he was five years old and is classically trained in jazz and gospel. He explored that connection further in college, where he majored in math and wrote a senior thesis on the overlap between math and music. After a three-year stint at GE and six months spent volunteering in a local school teaching math with the piano, he knew he had a solid concept on his hands.
“We bought pianos and I created a workbook after those six months of teaching every week,” says Blackwell. “The kids loved it, and to my surprise, we were actually improving their math scores. Over the span of six years, we worked with 50 schools in eight different states as an after-school and summer school enrichment program.”
However, the in-person workshops, while successful, weren’t scalable. Last year, Blackwell entered and won $72,000 from the WeWork Creator Awards; the funding turned out to be the final puzzle piece in creating and funding his math education platform, Make Music Count.
The platform currently includes four lessons on fractions, algebra, graphing, and pre-calculus. Its app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, relies on the same concept behind his music classes — each key represents a math term, rather than a musical term.
One lesson will include, for example, several algebraic formulas that play to melodies and chords of popular hip-hop and pop songs. The top half of the screen shows the equation, which you can solve by pushing the required keys.
“Through [our] method, you don’t have to read sheet music, you don’t have to understand theory of music. If you can count on the piano with the same basis of a number line, when you add, you move to the right, and you subtract, you move to the left. Then, you’d be able to essentially find the intervals between each note.”
At the end of the lesson, the child will have learned both how to play that song, and have conquered fractions.
A mini Blackwell look-a-like character gives students, who range from third through 12th grade, a teacher substitute to walk them through the problems and react to their correct/incorrect answers.
As a member of music licensing organization ASCAP, Make Music Count has an expansive music library to let kids choose the songs that they want to learn the most.
Similar to the in-person workshops, the startup licenses a vendor subscription model with a per-student fee so schools or school districts can sign up for an entire year. For home users with access to a tablet, there’s a monthly subscription option that gives parents and children access to the whole curriculum with frequent updates.
Blackwell isn’t actively looking for funding, trying to remain bootstrapped to focus on traction and reaching schools and students that could benefit from the tool. “We’ll be trying to find creative ways to connect with parents, teachers, and students, including partnering with other educational technology platforms.”
Make Music Count app is currently available for download and already has several school clients up and down the East coast, including in Connecticut, New York, Washington D.C., North Carolina and South Carolina. There’s also been interest from overseas schools, where Blackwell mentions the possibility of incorporating music from that country into the lessons.
“Math as a subject gets a really bad rap; people need to understand that math is no different than any other subject that you learn. We’ve got some great data for these past six years that show that this is really improving behavior, improving test scores, and it’s actually good for students who are good at math too,” says Blackwell.