(by Gunnar Mein, Co-Founder)
Hello! You are here to read about together.math? Excellent!
If you are in a math class today – learning or teaching – you will have little trouble recognizing why we do what we do. But for the rest of you, let me start with a couple of anecdotes:
I'm Gunnar Mein. For 6 years, I ran an afternoon physics program to build a “Fusor”. It is not a trivial machine, and we were lucky to have the mentorship of a world-class particle physicist. Together, we would not only teach the kids the math they needed to know, but we would also demand that they use it – and show us their work when they were presenting an important result. Have you ever been put on the spot to demonstrate something mathematical in front of somebody who knows it cold? It is never easy. What if you make a mistake and look like a fool in front of the expert? Will the others laugh at you? Will the expert think less of you? Will your writing look neat and organized, or like the scribblings of a child?
These are all legitimate concerns. And students do not have to go into an advanced physics program to feel that way – a parent looking over their homework can have the same effect, let alone being asked to present in class. And there is the other side of the equation (pun intended). In my 7 years of teaching high school, I have seen only a couple of students show their work in a way that would make it easy for someone else to follow. Multiple times my colleague and I sent students away to work out a figure, only to see them come back after an hour with a whiteboard full of scribbles and a summary statement of “we all did it independently and came to the same result, so it must be right.” Coming home, I would see my wife, teaching math and coaching the math team at the time, grade paper and pencil scribblings for hours. There is another facet to my experience – I am a father of two (present and former) college students. I would shake my head in disbelief looking at my son’s college math homework, which consisted of using a website to have up to three attempts to submit the right (one-line) answer to a calculus problem.
Consider for a moment what it takes to grade math homework and give useful feedback: The grader must be able to read the homework, follow the logic, and figure out where the student went wrong if they do not come to the correct result. This takes a very qualified human being and remains tedious work even for them. Grading math homework fundamentally does not scale – the bottleneck is always the human grader. This is practical only for a small segment of students, just like private tutoring is. How are we going to teach math to the next billion STEM students? Certainly not how we teach the 1% today.
We could stand here all day and just ask students to “get over” their fear of not measuring up. We could give them bad grades if they do not show their work. We could say “oh well, I guess that’s the best we can do,” but we think it might be more productive to help our students and teachers. We want to help them to express their mathematical thoughts, easily and beautifully. We want to make their work faster, taking some of the mechanics that have nothing to do with math out of the process. To the extent possible, we want to flag errors in their work, so they can fix them in private, without an audience, and confidently submit something they believe is right. We want them to be able to work with a partner, because like most things in life, math, too, is more fun when you can talk it through with someone else. When they are done, we want to give them a submission mechanism that their teacher can trust – a tool that give the teacher the same verification help we offer the students, and that gives the teacher an authentic report of what help the student used, who they worked with, and how much time they spent.
In a future post, we will take a closer look at the features of together.math. In the meantime, our small public alpha test release is coming soon, and we would love for you to join our wait list at https://www.together.science/waitlist if you want to experience together.math for yourself and give us feedback!