Alumni News Brief

Social Math-ia

Phillips takes to TikTok for calculus lessons

Olivia Phillips, A.B. '20

Olivia Phillips began creating math videos for TikTok soon after graduating from SEAS in 2020.

An introduction to solving algebraic inequalities. A quick lesson on interpreting derivatives in calculus. A funny montage of math-centric childhood pictures, set to a snippet from “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus.

Olivia Phillips, A.B. ‘20, has been producing TikTok videos ever since finishing her degree in applied mathematics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Her audience has grown to nearly 100,000 followers; and view counts for her vignettes now routinely hit five digits, and occasionally even hit six. With her combination of knowledge, enthusiasm, humor and relatability, Phillips has carved out a niche for herself in the world of social media content.

“When I created this, I didn't know what I was expecting,” she said. “It’s very cool there’s a world out there where people just enjoy hearing someone talk about math.”

Phillips completed her Harvard degree from home, as campuses closed across the nation in the early months of the pandemic. She’s never forgotten how it felt to abruptly switch to remote learning, which brought on new challenges and mental stresses just weeks before she was set to graduate.

“School pretty much ended,” Phillips said. “Even if we were still going to classes, we weren’t really going to school.”

Phillips became an algebra and statistics teacher at Chelsea High School in Massachusetts just a few months later. Figuring some of her incoming students shared her difficulties with remote learning, she made a TikTok video with a simple message: follow me for algebra refreshers.

“From that one video, I went from 50 followers to literally 100,000, because people were saying they needed it,” she said.

Those followers included many of the students Phillips would meet when school began that fall. She quickly discovered many of her students arrived with gaps in their math education, especially in topics they would have learned the previous spring.

“I had students who were super bright, top of their class, but they’d have these huge gaps,” Phillips said. “I’d be talking about basic concepts in trigonometry, and they wouldn’t remember it, or tell me they slept through class.”

TikTok videos became a way to bring those students back up to speed.

“Some of my students were surprised we were going over the same material again, while others would say, ‘I don’t remember how to add,’” Phillips said.

Phillips kept up the videos as she earned an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2021 and moved on that fall to teach algebra and calculus at Jackson-Reed High School in Washington, D.C. Her videos don’t just cover specific topics, such as linear equations or limits, but also skills such as how to use a graphing calculator. She usually makes her content coincide with the academic calendar: videos in August will have more to do with the start of the school year, but videos in May will focus on the AP Calculus exam.

There’s also the occasional funny video about different student behaviors during tests, or how many math puns she can insert into an explanation of why she chose to become a teacher. Phillips also never shies away from acknowledging the ongoing pandemic.

“Recently, I made a video about how AP scores shouldn’t be used as a definition of one’s own self-worth,” she said. “I had to do this for myself when I’d start kicking myself for not getting more done during the last year. I try to remind students that even if they didn’t get the scores they wanted, they should remember they had to learn all of this during COVID. The fact that they took this test and did their best shows a remarkable strength of character.”

Videos typically take around two hours to complete. Phillips starts with a script. After 30 to 60 minutes of shooting, she edits the video, uploads it to TikTok and adds a few final bells and whistles.

Her TikTok vignettes have given Phillips a way to connect with her students and tens of thousands more, all while talking about a topic she loves.

“I find it fun,” she said. “I’m happiest creating content on topics I like. This gave me a way to be excited about calculus outside of the constraints of a classroom.”

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