STEM for the Next Billion Minds
together.science aims to change how students learn STEM subjects, by pushing beyond the walls of the classroom and encouraging students to collaborate globally.
After a career at Microsoft, Gunnar Mein spent seven years as a high school teacher teaching computer science. As a teacher, he found that getting students to show their work is often an uphill battle. Students don’t like the process of writing out their thought process step by step, and therefore lose out on engaging with the material deeply. There are no tools that provide a fluid experience for students to express their thinking on STEM subjects – writing equations and notations out on paper or in Word is time-consuming, and LaTeX requires a high learning curve. On the flip side, for teachers, grading students’ work is time-intensive. Handwriting can be hard to read, and students don’t always explain how they went from one step to another, putting the burden on teachers to do the interpretation. As a result, teachers are tempted to just mark whether the answer was correct, rather than giving detailed personalized feedback to help each student succeed.
Because of these experiences, in the latter half of his teaching career, Gunnar started thinking about ways to remove the frictions around expressing scientific and mathematical thinking and sharing work with others. He decided to focus on algebra because it is a gateway skill that must be mastered to understand everything that follows – from geometry to calculus, and over all sciences. together.science and its first product, together.math, were born out of these efforts, giving students an easy user interface for writing out algebraic equations. The interface automatically translates what students are typing into algebraic notations, enables students to easily label each line of their thought process, and provides drag and drop functions to move different parts of the equation around.
Intuitive drag and drop for making changes to both sides of the equation:
Translating writing to mathematical notation:
It also provides instant feedback to where students may have gone wrong in their thought process. Here it shows when students are correct in the next step:
In addition, a key capability together.science provides is to allow students to collaborate with each other in working on the same problem. Here the initials of the user making edits can be seen:
together.science can be thought of as Google Docs plus Jupyter Notebook – it combines the collaboration functionality of Google Docs, while providing the specific capability to intuitively write out mathematical equations and scientific notations, in the same way that Jupyter Notebook is the industry standard for sharing one’s process for working through a data science problem.
When it was time to start real work on together.science in June 2021, Qian (Cathy) Deng, a current Chicago Booth student, joined the company as a co-founder. Gunnar and Cathy had met in the MIDS Data Science program at UC Berkeley. Cathy works on both product research and business aspects of the start-up, including: interviewing students, tutors, and teachers; learning from successful education technology startups; surveying accelerators and other possible investors; and managing contractors and interns. As a college student, Cathy served as a grader for a number theory course, where she experienced first-hand the challenges of grading student homework. The course originally agreed to compensate her for 5 hours per week, but eventually, Cathy asked to be compensated for 15 hours to be able to grade thoroughly. In addition to developing an appreciation of how time-intensive it was to grade and provide personalized feedback for each student, Cathy also saw the importance of providing student safe spaces to experiment. While completing homework, students are often focused on the grade itself, rather than being open to experimenting with their thoughts. For Cathy, together.math – with its capabilities for collaboration and fluidly trying out different approaches – provides the space for experimentation without worrying about failure.
In January 2022, the company added Gabriela (Gaby) Arismendi, a freshly-minted Chicago Booth MBA graduate. While at Booth, Gaby earned concentrations in Entrepreneurship, Marketing Management, Strategic Management, and Operations. She also served as a team member and project lead for multiple nonprofit and small business consulting projects. Prior to Booth, Gaby completed her undergraduate degree to be a high school English teacher, and later went on to earn her MSW at the University of Chicago. At together.science, Gaby lends her professional experiences in education and youth work to advance the team's marketing and business development efforts.
Where together.science is today
Currently, together.science is focused on getting the platform ready for an initial pilot and reaching out to potential educational institutions to become partners. In the initial phases, together.science plans to use ads to generate revenue to support its services. As the start-up solidifies its core product offerings, together.science plans to charge subscriptions for individual classes, or licenses at the institutional level.
Most recently, the team has been accepted into the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Social New Venture Challenge, which provides funding to social ventures and has jump-started more than 100 companies and nonprofits since 2011. With additional funding, the team aims to add marketing functions and expand into more global marketplaces.
The Long-Term Vision
In the future, the team plans to expand to science and math subjects beyond algebra. In addition, as the platform matures, the team plans to provide more sophisticated ways of providing personalized feedback to students, through using AI and reinforcement learning methods, to lower the burden on teachers to provide this feedback individually to the large numbers of students they are working with.
Beyond providing a more fluid way for students and teachers to learn and teach STEM, together.science’s long-term vision is to change the way these subjects are learned, and foster global access to STEM education. Traditionally, we are used to thinking of learning as being purely contained within the classroom, where students can only work with others in their class. The pandemic has been seen as mainly a negative disruption to this classroom model. For example, students could no longer work on science labs together, and there are many solutions being developed to simply replicate the classroom experience again.
However, together.science aims to expand learning beyond the confines of the classroom, and ultimately look at the opportunities that the pandemic can bring for education. Gunnar notes that “we truly cannot bring STEM education to the next billion people in the same way we currently teach the 1%.” Because together.science enables students to collaborate no matter where they happen to be, students can work together to learn STEM subjects, without boundaries, no matter which part of the country, or even which country, they are living in. A student working on a physics problem in the U.S. could reach out and communicate with another student studying the same subject in India. Over the long-term horizon, together.science will build tools that can be used to bring more science and math education to developing countries, where students may not always have access to high-quality education, but will tend to have access to the internet. together.science aims to turn the traditional classroom model on its head, and make STEM education accessible to all students globally by becoming the standard way by which students learn, collaborate, and explore STEM subjects in the future.
To learn more about together.science, visit: https://www.together.science/