Growing up in L.A., Khalil Fuller was obsessed with basketball shoes. By age 13, he was running a sneaker company out of his closet, buying shoes low and selling them at a profit. In the process—as he calculated the profits that would eventually buy him a car—he also became obsessed with the real-world usefulness of math.
By high school, it was clear that most of his friends didn't feel the same way about algebra or statistics. His two best friends, after falling far behind in math, eventually dropped out of school. Fuller started tutoring other kids and had an epiphany: If he could connect math to something that a ninth grader cared about, maybe they'd actually want to study.
The idea eventually became NBA Math Hoops, a board game where kids play the part of basketball coaches, drafting players based on statistics and doing simple math to take each shot. Suddenly, math problems become interesting: Should the Warriors have Kevin Durant take a two-point shot within 15 feet of the basket, or Steph Curry pull up for a corner three?
The inspiration came from the first students Fuller tutored. "They were beautiful, energetic black boys, and they loved basketball, and they could not stand doing their math homework," he says. He started to offer incentives—they could go outside and play basketball if they finished their math homework early. Then he started adding a little math on the court and then started using it in the tutoring sessions.
"Instead of 'Sally went to the store and bought x number of apples,' it was 'Kobe went to the gym and took x number of shots,'" he says. "And I started to see, just even with simple things like that, a little glimmer in their eyes—started to see, 'Oh, this math stuff isn't so bad if we get to talk about things that we care about.'"
As a freshman at Brown University, Fuller met educator Tim Scheidt, who had a nascent version of the board game. Fuller used his high school experience to develop it further. The game incorporates basic math—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—and more advanced skills like statistical analysis and probability.
Fuller launched a nonprofit called Learn Fresh to produce the game, partnering with the NBA and WNBA to make player cards with real statistics and Hasbro to produce the games for free. The nonprofit works with teachers to help introduce them to the game and also runs tournaments and brings NBA stars to schools for extra motivation.
Now, after a stint at the nonprofit tech accelerator Fast Forward, Learn Fresh is working on an app to update stats more quickly and extend the game.
"We're trying to get directly in the pockets of kids when they're not at school, not in after-school programs," he says. "So when they probably aren't doing anything that's educationally enriching, we want to pull them into something that's fun but also good for them from an academic standpoint."
The nonprofit is also working on creating math games based on other interests, like football or hip-hop.
The concept seems to work. In studies with the American Institute for Research, the organization found that after a year of playing NBA Math Hoops, students did nearly three times better on standardized math tests than a control group. It's the kind of intervention schools desperately need: Around two-thirds of eighth- graders score "below proficient" in math. Among low-income students, 83% are not proficient.
Equally importantly, playing the game seems to make students more likely to want to study.
"If we can change the narrative of self and have them see themselves as strong math students, then we think that will propel them forward and eventually into STEM careers," Fuller says. Two-thirds of students who reported doing math homework "sometimes" before the program say that they now do it most of the time.
"That math homework is not NBA Math Hoops," he says. "What we hope that is kind of a proxy for, and what we believe, is that we're helping kids become better math students writ large."
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