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Educational innovation: Math teacher creates film to teach students STEM

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Careers in STEM fields remain in high demand, but few applicants have the qualifications necessary to snag a well-paying STEM job. According to a 2016 report by the testing company ACT, only 26 percent of high school seniors are prepared to study STEM in college. When the numbers were broken down by race, African-Americans, at 5 percent, were least likely to hit the STEM readiness benchmark.

Leal “Al” Smith, who teaches math at Pike High School, feels many students struggle because they don’t understand how numbers on paper apply to the real world. Smith says that while many students can spend hours chatting with him about video games, very few have that same vigor when it comes to learning about math.

“I’m wondering, why is it that you know everything about ‘Black Ops,’ but you don’t know anything about this equation I’m showing you? I think it’s because they don’t spend time with it. There is no desire or correlation with academic success and real-world application. I wanted to change that,” said Smith. 

Smith applied for and was one of 100 Indiana educators awarded a Teacher Creativity Fellowship from Lilly Endowment. The Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program aims to help teachers renew their commitment to education by enabling them to pursue their dreams and passions, explore new areas of interest, expand existing talents and develop new ones. Smith, who is passionate about writing and filmmaking, was awarded the opportunity to attend classes at the American Black Film Festival in Miami and visit the Vancouver Film School. He was also given the funds to produce a film about education.

The Black Hornet of Flatland Heights


Smith’s upcoming film, “The Black Hornet of Flatland Heights,” is about a young high school basketball star who is struggling in science class at school and consequently gets kicked off the basketball team. The character loses his scholarship, girlfriend and popularity, but later decides to use his superhuman athletic ability to fight against evil as the Black Hornet. 

This STEM-themed science fiction film is in its earliest stages of development, and Smith has local students working with him as part of his production team. A student from Cathedral High School, a student from Pendleton Heights High School, and two recent Pike graduates are among the young people involved in creating the film. Though he has started filming some scenes, Smith says he is still looking for a teenage boy to play the lead role. 

Janay Watson, a recent Pike High School graduate, is working as an intern for Smith. Watson says she enjoys being a part of the project. As an intern, she has worked both behind and in front of the camera and helps Smith post to social media. 

“I see so much passion in him, and whenever I see passion in anyone with what they do, it makes me want to invest in that and it inspires and motivates me to go far in my life and in my career. He keeps everyone going when things get tough,” said Watson.

After the film is complete, Smith plans to develop a curriculum that relates to the movie and distribute it to schools in Indiana and beyond. Teachers will be able to pause the film at certain points and distribute worksheets that allow students to work on problems that reflect what the characters are facing on screen. 

“There is Luke Cage for an older demographic, but there hasn’t really been a superhero film starring a minority teen,” said Smith. “I really wanted to target minority males and youth, because I feel like there is a void in innovative stories. My overall goal is to create a space for math and STEM in entertainment and to make this material digestible for students.”


For more information on “The Black Hornet of Flatland Heights” and other projects by Smith, visit purpixmedia.com.

Leal “Al” Smith is an educator and filmmaker in Indianapolis.  He teaches at Pike High School and is an adjunct professor at Ivy Tech Community College.

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