Homework Math For Developers

Update: Fundraising Successful. Parents Turned Inventors Say Their Free App for Students with Dysgraphia Now Supports Algebra Students too. 

ModMath 2.0 also allows students to print their assignments or send them electronically through e-mail, text or dropbox.

San Francisco - Two year back, a free app called ModMath quietly debuted in the Apple app store. The developers, a husband and wife team from San Francisco, were not part of the tech scene. They weren’t trying to come up with the next SnapChat or Uber. And they didn’t care about funding from Kleiner Perkins.

What they did care about was helping their son who was falling behind in math because his handwriting was so illegible, even he couldn’t read it. Their son who is dyslexic also has dysgraphia, a condition that often accompanies dyslexia. The condition makes it difficult to write legibly and impairs the ability to get thoughts down on paper.

Prior to the invention of ModMath, the only option for kids with severe dysgraphia was to dictate to an adult how to work through each problem and have that person write down exactly what he or she said. “This wasn’t a great long-term solution, as I suspect my son wouldn’t be too happy to have me as his college roommate,” says co-developer, Dawn Denberg, mother of a bright 13-year-old boy, who perseveres academically despite his learning disabilities.

Children with dysgraphia understand math concepts, but they can’t write legibly enough or keep number columns neat enough to effectively add, subtract, multiply, or divide multi-digit equations.

The app, which works on the iPad, is called ModMath. It eliminates the need for students to write out math equations long hand. Think Excel, but without a calculator to do the calculations. Kids use the touch screen and on-screen keypad to set up and solve problems. They can work through complicated math concepts, including multiplying multi-digit numbers, long division, regrouping and adding fractions with unlike denominators.

These parents, turned app developers, ponied up $12,500 and hired a computer engineer to create a beta version. “I’d spent countless hours searching for a technology that would help our son and it simply didn’t exist,” says Denberg. “It was a stretch for us financially, but giving up was not a viable solution And if our son was having this problem we figured there must be thousands also struggling.”

They were right. We get e-mails from parents with all sorts of disabilities, including ADHD, Autism and dyspraxia,” says Denberg. “They all felt just as lost as we did,” says Denberg.   To date, the app has been downloaded by more than 100,000 people and gets rave reviews from both parents and educators. “We received a steady stream of letters thanking us for creating ModMath. But an equal number beg for additional features like a keyboard that can support algebra students,” says Denberg. 

After tapping out their personal resources on the beta version, they decided to take ModMath to the next level by turning it into a full-on nonprofit charity. “We entered into a fiscal sponsorship deal with a nonprofit called MarinLink and received a grant of $10,000 from the Christopher’s Way Foundation.  

Additionally, they launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $20,000 to pay for upgrades.  “Our beta version was put together on a shoe string budget, so it was a bit-glitchy,” says Denberg. “We really shook the tress to make this upgrade happen.”

The new an improved ModMath with all new bells and whistles launched last month. “The new version works for exponents, square roots as well as complex algebraic equations, which means we can now reach a much wider group of kids.”

Are the Denbergs committed to futher improving ModMath?  “Absolutely. We ran out of money to do anything further for free, but we decided to start charging a nominal fee for the next upgrade,” says Denberg. “We’re a nonprofit, but we’re trying to avoid being a negative profit,” says Denberg.The next update, to be released in March, will include a feature that allows student the option of uploading worksheets. “It will be a huge time saver as kids now have to input each math problem by hand,” says Denberg.

A little confession from me. I was homeschooled (that's not the confession part), and in 8th grade my algebra textbook had the answers to half the problems in the back. And when I was stumped, I would cheat.

Sorry, mom!

Of course, cheating at math is a terrible way to learn, because the whole point isn't to know the answer to 2x + 2 = 7x - 5, it's to understand the methodology that can solve any like problem.

But what if you could cheat at your homework and learn? That seems to be the premise behind app called Socratic. Or at least that's my takeaway. The app lets you take a picture of a problem (you can also type it in, but that's a little laborious), and it'll not only give you an answer, but the steps necessary to to arrive at that answer — and even detailed explanations of the steps and concepts if you need them.

The app is actually designed to answer any kind of school question — science, history, etc. — but the math thing is the slickest part. For other kinds of questions, Socratic kind of does a bit of Googling, and in my experience can typically find similar word problems on the wide internet, or from its own database of answers. On about half the middle school science problems I tried, the app was able to identify the topic at question and show me additional resources about the concepts involved, but for others it was no more powerful than a simple web search.

But for algebra this thing is sick. I pointed it at 2x + 2 = 7x - 5, which I wrote down at random, and it gave me a 10 step process that results in x = 7/5. It has trouble with word problems, but if you can write down a word problem in math notation it shouldn't be an issue. I also tried it on a weird fraction from an AP algebra exam, which it kind of failed at, but then I swiped over and it was showing me this graph, which included the correct answer:

I love this app, not just because it would've helped 8th grade Paul out of a jam, but because it's such a computery use of computers. You use the tiny computer in your pocket to be basically smarter than you already are. It's technology that augments a human brain, not just a distraction.

The creator of Socratic just open sourced its step-by-step solver, called mathsteps. There are a lot of computer-based algebra solvers out there, but for Socratic they had to do some extra engineering to get at the steps a human would need to solve the same problem.

Also, I'd be remiss not to mention Photomath, which has been doing this since 2014, and actually has step-by-step explanations in the recently released Photomath+ paid version (there's a free trial). I like the Socratic interface and explanations a bit better, but I'm glad to see this is a vibrant market.

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