PBS Math Club uses pop culture references to sell YouTube kids on being smart.
Turn a corner in a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles and there they are: Grace, Hannah, Jazmin and Madison, the stars of the math-gets-cool web series from PBS, Math Club.
Just kids, but Hollywood kids, all of them. And yet, in spite of having agents at an age when most kids don't have cars, each one of them is practical and nice. Smart even. Even when they're talking about building their personal brands, you can't help but think these kids are all right. And in spite of the fact that most girls their age do worse at math than the boys, these girls are on a mission to make being smart cool again.
The production outfit is lean. Just two camera ops, a director, an assistant and a producer who also runs sound. They're set up at a local high school. It's a Saturday. But here they are, filming a scene about averages.
The set-up for this one is simple: Grace Julianna is getting text messages from her boyfriend. But fewer today than yesterday. So she's losing her mind with worry that he's stopped liking her. Madison Lawlor takes advantage of the opportunity to teach Julianna about averaging numbers. Maybe he's texting less today than yesterday, but how many times does he text ... on average?
Kids. Math. That's it. It's a math lesson, and a life lesson. And it's brought to you via teenage girls.
"How do you take an academic topic that's sort of abstract and then make it relatable or fun or interesting?"
That's Dylan Robertson. He's the director of Math Club. As he checks the camera angles and makes sure the girls know where to stand and what direction to face, he reminds me of the old Hollywood saying about working with children and dogs, and how there's nothing more complicated.
Robertson's show is all children (thankfully for him, no dogs), plus he has to make math look interesting. It's not a cakewalk. It starts with research from his academic advisors.
"We'll look at that [research], and what was apparent to us from the beginning is, how do you translate that into plain speak?" he says.
For their multiplication video, the team made a Wes Anderson movie rip-off, merged with reality-TV flair. For negative numbers, they riffed on Mean Girls and Darth Vader. For subtraction, The Matrix. Each episode starts with an academic topic, and then Robertson and his team try to find a real-world example that kids will find interesting in order to explain it.
For the integer video, all of the academic research suggested kids would learn best from a thermometer. Hot is positive, cold is negative. Add one to the other, etc. Robertson's team threw that right out.
"We have another teacher, Helen Papadopoulos, who was California teacher of the year in 2007," he says. "The reason we got her was, we wanted somebody who had taught kids day in and day out. ... And she's like, 'Don't use the thermometer. Kids don't get it.' So we're like, 'OK, throw out the thermometer script.'"
The script they used instead is much simpler, more to the point and features the kids just being kids. The first example: YouTube. The Math Club kids use YouTube voting as an example of positive and negative numbers. A thumbs up vote is a positive number, and a thumbs down vote is a negative number. Check a video's total votes — it's a product of adding up all those positive and negative numbers. Boom — integers.
Julianna takes the lead breaking integers down even further. She tells a story about borrowing $50 from a friend to buy a jacket at the mall. Now she owes her friend $50. Meaning, she has -$50. She went from zero to negative. That's an integer.
"It turned out that [Julianna] was so natural," says Robertson. "She looked at [the integer problem] and she was like, 'I know exactly what to do.' And she made it her own. She bought her own jacket. I feel like that's what makes that scene — it's all done in one take, because it's just her speaking very plainly."
"She's like, 'Don't use the thermometer. Kids don't get it.' So we're like, 'OK, throw out the thermometer script.'"
"There's a lot of messages in our society. You want to be popular, don't be smart, and really don't be good at math."Hannah Chang
Robertson and his partner Bill Ferehawk are documentary producers who make short films and the occasional contract program for organizations like the Sundance Channel and the University of California Berkeley. Robertson's background is musical documentaries. He did the documentary Mavericks: Honky Tonk Angels, about women in country music, for Biography. Then he and Ferehawk formed Radiant Pictures, with which they've covered topics as diverse as the Cold War and biotechnology investor Moshe Alafi. They're currently working on a documentary for the History channel about the expansion of the Panama Canal.
PBS approached the company in 2013 about doing something about math, specifically for girls.
"It was totally out of the blue," says Robertson. "We'd been wanting to work with PBS for a while. Their digital studio is fantastic, really innovative. They came to us and said, 'We just received a grant from Newman's Own, and we want to do something on math ..."
PBS had data showing that girls, by the end of high school, are essentially a grade behind boys in terms of understanding math principles. The organization wanted Radiant to tackle the problem early, with middle-school kids.
"We started looking into the problem," says Robertson. "One of the things we said was, 'Wow, there aren't a lot of role models at the middle-school level. Just the stereotypes.' If a girl wants to be popular and get a date, don't talk about math. You think about just how damaging that stereotype is in many ways.
"There's a lot of messages in our society. You want to be popular, don't be smart, and really don't be good at math. Whatever you do, don't be good at math. So we wanted to create this show where four of the five hosts are girls."
Talking to the Math Club girls reveals very quickly they are anything but stereotypical. First there's Hannah Chang. She's an American-born daughter of Korean immigrants. She competes in academic decathlons and in her spare time is writing a thesis on how the Japanese occupation of mainland Korea during World War II affected modern South Korean culture.
("Like, for instance, in Korean words, there's this pickled radish. In Korean it's called danmuji, and in Japanese it's takuan. The majority of people call it takuan, though.")
Math Club was her first acting gig.
"I was always interested in acting," Chang says. "My mom, when she was really little, she was an actress in Korea. It was just kind of a family thing? She said, you know what, it wouldn't hurt, just try it. So I said, sure, I'll do it. And it's about math. I like math."
Jazmin Pollinger, at 16, is the youngest of the group. She's been acting since she was 10. Her biggest credit so far was as an extra in the TNT series The Closer.
"It was the best experience ever," she says. "It's just been building up since then. I also do a lot of Shakespeare. I'm part of this group called the Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble. We're currently working on A Midsummer Night's Dream. I'm the assistant director for that. Yay!"
When Pollinger told her math teacher she was in PBS Math Club, he was so excited for her, and the project, that he started playing one of the videos in class.
Back at the shoot, Robertson is directing Julianna and Lawlor through a scene that involves the two of them lying on the grass, staring up at the cameras and counting the text messages on their phones. In the final cut, the scene will be less than a minute of the less-than-five-minute video.
The overall pace of production is quick. The shot at the school took a couple of hours. The park will be wrapped in less than that. Then it's lunch time, and then an hour or two back at the show's main set, a garage behind a house that's been converted into a bedroom.
Julianna and Lawlor roll with it. They improvise lines, goof off between takes and, in general, try to not screw up. They're both pros, but also undeniably teenagers.
"I think I have all these different aspects of my personality," Lawlor says. "I enjoy a bunch of different things."
Lawlor grew up in South Dakota. She did track and cross-country, and was on a break from playing soccer when she dipped her toe into acting. While a freshman in high school, she persuaded her parents to let her try an acting camp in LA, then spent the summer of that year living in LA, going to auditions. She finished her sophomore year in Rapid City, then moved to LA "full-time."
"That's been my main thing ever since," she says.
After spending her Saturday shooting Math Club, she's off to do an audition for a pilot called Madame Secretary, starring Tea Leoni. (The pilot got picked up, but Lawlor didn't get the job.) The day before, she auditioned for a Disney show.
When asked why math is important, she immediately rattles off a plug for Math Club, then asks for a second chance to answer the question.
"Math is important," she says, and she means it. "It's the root of science. It's the root of architecture. It's the root of so many things. You do need to know math if you want to be an educated human being and understand how things in the world function."
Julianna, 17, is perhaps the most typical teenage actor of the group. She's been acting since age 7. She did a Hanes commercial. She was princess Azula in the Last Airbender film. ("It was really bad, but it was in theaters.") Her dream role: Mafia princess.
"Because I'm Mexican and Italian," she says. Then she asks if she looks more Mexican or more Italian. After the shoot, she will be off to an audition for a Coca-Cola commercial. It's not a callback, but it's a referral from her last callback, so she's hopeful.
Julianna is from New Jersey. Like Lawlor, she spent time in LA getting her feet wet and then decided to make the move permanent. Math Club was her big break.
"My mom was actually planning on taking me back to Jersey for a year," she says, "and I'd come back [to LA] senior year, but I didn't want to come back. Just because of the money situation. I was going to go back to Jersey. But then, when I got this job, I was like, 'Yes, I got a job, I'm not leaving anymore! Oh, yes! Everything's happening!'"
Julianna wants to keep acting and eventually direct, but Math Club is more than just a gig. Like the rest of the girls (and the only boy, Jacob, who was off on this day), she just enjoys teaching other kids.
"We're actual kids, and we can relate to other kids that are watching our videos," she says. "We help them. We act as their friend. We put math in cool scenarios. It's very different and very unique and very lifelike. It's life-changing. It really works. And we're smart, too. We know how to help you with your math!"
"It's the root of science. It's the root of architecture. It's the root of so many things."Grace Julianna
The secret mean
On the bedroom set, Lawlor is explaining to Julianna how periods and frequencies can be averaged to give you a mean. In this way, according to Math Club's logic, Julianna will be able to determine how many texts she gets from her boyfriend, on average, and whether this means he likes her or doesn't like her.
Pollinger explains the concept before the shoot:
"It's like, I got 800,000 messages this week! Is that good or bad? ... If you have a series of numbers, the mode is the number that occurs the most. And then the mean is, if you add up all the numbers in that series and then divide it by the number of numbers in the series, you'll get the average of that thing."
On set, the procedure goes something like this:
Lawlor determines the period, which is the seven days of the most recent week. So, seven. Then she adds up the frequencies, which is the number of texts Julianna has received from her boyfriend on each day. For a total of 17,395 text messages. That number is then divided by the period (seven) to find the mean: 2,485. Which is a lot of text messages.
Cue: teenage girl screams of glee. He likes her.
Also, Julianna now understands how to find a mean. And she learned it in a way that's relevant to her life.
"The way I think about these shows is that they're on YouTube," says Robertson. "A lot of times, with academic stuff, they're like, the kids have to watch this anyway. ... It's like, 'This will be good for you in the future!' What we're saying is, 'No, for the next five minutes you're going to have fun. This will be super fun and enjoyable.' And out of it they'll learn math."