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New startup offers students free online tools to learn math – UChicago News

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By Margaret Currie

Math is a struggle for too many students in high school and junior high. And some of the most effective solutions, such as individualized tutoring, are expensive and difficult to scale.
But what if students could complete their math assignments online—and get instant feedback at each step of the way?
That’s the concept behind the first product from together.science, a new startup that turns STEM education on its head. Through the startup’s free, ad-supported web-based tool, students can learn concepts, solve problems, check their work, and collaborate with teachers and classmates—all digitally.
Co-founded by an alum and a student from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business—along with a former software developer and teacher—together.science won first place and $75,000 in this year’s John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC), the social impact track of UChicago’s nationally ranked business launch program, the New Venture Challenge. 
“There are a lot of tools out there that help students solve math problems. But the whole focus is on the answer—not how you got there,” said Bruce Brege, MBA’82, division head of mathematics at Stanford Online High School and an SNVC judge. “What got me excited about the together.science team is that they’re the first people I’ve seen who are putting together something that looks at that journey and makes sure that students have that understanding of what they’re doing.”
The idea for the startup began years ago with Gunnar Mein, who saw as a high school teacher how kids lost interest in algebra, a foundational part of all STEM subjects they would then encounter. “I saw the need for a digital tool that makes it easier for kids to do structured math—not just a set of canned problems, but something they can bring their own homework to,” he said.
Mein later met Qian Deng, now a student at Chicago Booth. Joined by Gabriela Arismendi, MBA’21, they turned the concept into a startup that hopes to make an impact on students all over the world.
Mein: I’d been thinking about the idea since around 2016. Then I decided to get a master’s degree in data science at the University of California, Berkeley, and that’s where I met Qian. She heard about my plans and reached out.
Deng: Growing up, I did a lot of math competitions and did really well. But I learned the content sort of indirectly, so I never learned good habits like showing my work and asking for help. I started to see a gap between myself and my classmates, and I stopped believing in my ability to be a mathematician, which at one point was my life goal.
So when I heard what Gunnar was working on, I realized that I had the precise ability to help people not give up on that path—to provide those powerful opportunities to get feedback and ask for help.
Arismendi: I’m not a math person. But the education aspect is near and dear to my heart, so when I met Gunnar and Qian, it felt like a really good fit. In particular, our goal of making the product available for free to as many students and teachers as possible really resonated because of my background working with students of color, low-income students and first-generation students.
Deng: The initial nucleus was that instead of doing things on pencil and paper, students can now do their math homework digitally. That means you don’t need to decipher handwriting, which can be a real point of friction.
But it’s not just about that. The tool also provides automatic feedback to students, allows for real-time collaboration, and provides streamlined document management. It’s also about using the power of algorithms to understand the logic behind what students are doing, not just whether they get the right answer. We also use an intuitive interface and drag-and-drop functionality that helps students understand what’s happening with the elements of an equation.
Arismendi: Our primary audience is students and teachers, but we’ve also been talking to organizations that run after-school tutoring programs. Families that are homeschooling are also likely to benefit from this, as well as parents who are trying to help their children with homework but haven’t done algebra for a long time.
Deng: Yes. Studies show that getting individualized feedback is helpful, but that kind of feedback tends to be either unavailable or really expensive. Regardless of who you are or where you come from, our tool will give you instant feedback every step of the way to guide you to the right answer.
Mein: In addition, math grading is expensive, so it doesn’t scale. There are nations that are rising up out of poverty and undergoing transformations, and we really can’t afford to teach millions of students with tutors, the way we teach the 1 percent here.
That is really where the current system breaks down and where there’s a great opportunity. Remote learning is becoming a solution in itself, and we can be part of that solution. And we can scale the grading much better than a single teacher grading 50 students could.
Deng: Part of where we see this going is as a learning content marketplace for teachers. Currently teachers spend hours a week finding or creating instructional materials. What if they were all connected to other teachers around the world? We hope to build a foundation for teachers to start benefiting from the work of others.
Mein: Another big topic for the future is mobile. Much of the developing world will skip using computers and go straight to mobile. Our dream is that students will do their homework on their phones, on the train ride home from school. We think we can make an impact on millions of people.
Mein: It gives us a runway of funding. We’re a small operation, so the costs add up. It also opens doors. There are a number of startup support programs that you can only get into if you already have funding. So we can breathe a lot easier from that perspective.
But what we’re really excited about is the connections we’ve made. There are people and judges that we will stay in touch with who not only have given us fantastic feedback but can be helpful to us in the future.
Arismendi: We’re still in the phase of growth where we’re definitely looking to build more connections and relationships. So if you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, we would love to hear from you.
—A version of this story was first published by the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation. To connect with together.science, email Gabriela Arismendi.
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