Teaching math through technology — MATH 42

Interviews with those responsible for driving mobile learning innovation forward.

Technology is changing the options available to teachers and students and challenging our perceptions of education. In this series of interviews, I talk with digital designers in the education space about what they foresee for the future of education technology.

Related: Designing for Education — Tentouch

Maxim Nitsche is a co-founder of MATH 42, helping start the company as a teen. MATH 42 provides middle school, high school and college students the tools they need to better understand mathematics. It helps them with homework, test prep and during studies with (1) intelligent approaches to the solution, (2) step-by-step solutions and (3) a training- and test-mode. Exercises and solutions can be posted on Facebook and sent by email.

How did the project become about? What was the original concept? What problem was it solving? What were your original goals for the app?

Math is the only subject which is mandatory in every country of the world. Because of its abstract nature it presents a challengefor 2/3 of all students. Concerned students and their parents pour huge amounts of money into the private math tutoring industry, expected to exceed $90 billion by 2020.

Math 42 came out of 3 factors:

1) As a private tutor, I was confronted with this problem on a daily basis.

2) In 2007 the iPhone was released, and in 2010 the iPad — two incredibly powerful yet intuitive platforms. I knew immediately that they would change education forever.

3) We were always fascinated by AI and the automation of complex tasks. My father developed one of the first chess computers, was a computer chess world champion and created a contextual search engine which performed on the same level as Google.

Originally we wanted to create an app that would help every student worldwide with their math problems. The challenge was to create a product that would adapt to the individual needs of the student using MATH 42.

That’s why our approach has been to guide students through every problem step-by-step, answering their individual questions on demand and enabling them to train and track their progress.

Can you go into depth as to what your role was? How big was your team? What type of team members did you have?

Because I was 15 at the time, my role was to create and refine the concept of MATH 42, answering the questions, What should it do? How should it do it? How should it show it?I also developed the business side of MATH 42: How can we monetize? Who are potential investors? What is the easiest and most efficient way to achieve our goals?

At the start we were a team of 4: my brother Raphael, my father Thomas, his wife Oxana, and me.We had the perfect mix of team members to create a product that was — and still is — far beyond everything that has ever been done in the field. MATH 42 was made possible with the experience and know-how of Thomas and Oxana and the closeness in demographics to the target-group, and Raphael and I’s youthful dynamic and ability to learn.

What was your process for creating the product? First steps?

We started to think first about what the app should do from a student’s point of view. What does a student need in his everyday interaction with school and college math?

Then we went on to draw the first scribbles and develop the use cases.

Finally, we thought about the app’s software architecture before starting to code.

What was the biggest challenge creating a product for such a unique user base? Greatest learnings?

There were several big challenges we encountered when creating MATH 42.

1. We had to develop an intuitive, simple user experience while explaining complex and abstract concepts to students who are fundamentally frustrated with math.

2. We had no blueprint, we wanted to do something that no one had ever done before. We had to build every single component of the app from scratch, while knowing that other greats had failed at it (Microsoft, GeoGebra, etc.).

Our greatest learnings were probably the importance of the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) and to think of the general architecture of the app with regards to future developments.

We had to develop an intuitive, simple user experience while explaining complex and abstract concepts to students who are fundamentally frustrated with math.

Because we weren’t forward thinking enough, we had to redesign the entire app over the past year to get a system that could easily be expanded.

What is the next step for the product? How do you hope to use your learnings moving forward with product development?

The next step is making the product available on all platforms — not only on iOS, but also on Android and on the Web. Furthermore, we’ll finish the mathematical development of MATH 42 over the course of 2016, which will enable MATH 42 to handle every computable mathematical problem.

Where do you see education in the digital space in the immediate future? 5 years?

I think that education is moving away from the 250-year-long era of mass feeding to an adaptive and individualized learning experience with better outcome for everyone: teachers, students, schools and publishers.

In the immediate future more teachers and students will use apps and new content sources like MATH 42, Duolingo or Babbel to reach a better understanding and get results.

In five years publishers will understand that we are in the midst of an educational revolution and fully cooperate with new players in the business to create great new products.

Related: Designing for the blind and visually impaired — TapTapSee