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IU scientists' math learning software gets boost from campus commercialization group

Jan. 25, 2017

If it’s true that overnight success is a decade in the making, then it’s fitting that the first step of David Landy’s journey into the world of software startups began 10 years ago -- and in the middle of the night.

David Landy and Erik Weitnauer

From left, David Landy and Erik Weitnauer work together on their "Graspable Math" software project.  | PHOTO BY ERIC RUDD, IU COMMUNICATIONS

An assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Landy wrote his first lines of code to better envision and manipulate mathematical concepts while rocking a sleepless newborn around two in the morning.

That early program was the foundation for Graspable Math, an educational software platform whose development recently got a shot in the arm through a grant from IU’s Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research, which supports translational research and business partnerships on the IU Bloomington campus.

“I was literally rocking my newborn daughter, who is 10 years old now, when I started to put together some simple code to instantiate some of my psychological theories about how people think about mathematics," Landy said. “It was a rough program where you could pick up math symbols and manipulate them visually.”

Since re-coded and expanded in function, Graspable Math provides people the power to reproduce traditional pen-and-paper mathematical notations in an interactive, screen-based format.

The goal is freeing up the mental energy required to avoid minor mistakes -- like dropping pluses and minuses -- or to rewrite equations that remain largely unchanged throughout each step in the solving process. An interactive program that automatically performs these steps lets students focus on grasping the concepts behind the notation, Landy said.

It’s an approach supported by multiple studies led by Landy’s team in middle school classrooms in Virginia, Massachusetts and Maine. They consistently found that students pick up mathematical concepts faster and more effectively when using interactive versus traditional notation.

The team is also launching a new collaboration with the Math Assistance Center at IUPUI to test the concept on college algebra students. A small community of math instructors who use Graspable Math in their classrooms has also sprung up across the country after discovering the tools online.

“There are three major drop-off points in math,” Landy said. “The first is fourth grade with fractions, where many students get lost and don’t recover. The next is eighth grade, where algebra seems to be a really big cliff in terms of math scores. And then college, where the majority of students don’t take any math unless they’re required.”

equations on computer screen

The educational software company David Landy and Erik Weitnauer created received a small business grant from IU’s Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research. | PHOTO BY ERIC RUDD, IU COMMUNICATIONS

Both the potential of the software and the lack of students pursuing mathematics inspired the decision to develop Graspable Math as an educational product as well as a research tool. In addition to Landy, co-founders of Graspable Math Inc. are Erin Ottmar, an assistant professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute who previously served as a postdoctoral researcher in Landy’s lab; and Erik Weitnauer, a current postdoctoral researcher in the lab.

Last year, Graspable Math was one of seven projects to receive a pilot funds from the Johnson Center, which awarded a total of $160,000 in grants in 2016 to projects with strong potential to partner with industry.

“The funding has been integral in transforming Graspable Math into an effort that can scale and be used by a broader community of teachers,” Landy said. “As academics, we simply don’t have the same business connections or expertise. We’re incredibly grateful to the Johnson Center for their support.”

Opening up the flow of communication and collaboration between campus and business communities is the mission of the Johnson Center, assistant director Johanna E. Salazar said.

“We do everything from placing the right phone calls to assisting with background research related to patents or contract negotiations” -- in partnership with the IU Research and Technology Corp. and IU Office of Research Administration, respectively -- “to providing project management assistance, including moving projects along a prompt timeline, meeting milestones and then ensuring reports are filed on time,” she added. “Faculty are busy, and we’re here to do whatever we can to reduce the barriers between their research and industry.”

The center also helps build bridges into campus, such as consulting with the university’s core research facilities to formulate business plans and cost structures that better position them to accept contracts from outside IU and identifying researchers with expertise in areas where companies want to partner with the university. Established in 2014 to provide support to the College of Arts and Sciences, the center expanded its mission last year to encompass all of the IU Bloomington campus.

In terms of the center’s pilot grants, Salazar said the goal is helping researchers develop a strong “proof of concept” that raises their chances of attracting outside investment or commercial partnerships.

As a result of the funds, Graspable Math established an official advisory board of middle- and high-school teachers to provide feedback on the software’s usefulness and propose new features. This includes a recently developed a “scratchpad function” that lets students drag and drop content from the Web – or an online textbook -- and preserve their solving process so educators can review the work and correct mistakes.

“Building new features for end users is critical to creating a tool that addresses teachers’ needs and requires a lot of real hands-on coding,” Weitnauer said. “It’s also an effort that isn’t supported under our other forms of funding.”

Although Graspable Math’s main features will remain free online -- keeping the tool accessible to children is a key part of the company’s mission -- the team is actively pursuing companies that provides high-quality educational products, like online textbooks, about integrating the software through licensing agreements.

“This work sat dormant for years,” Landy said. “Now, thanks largely to the Johnson Center, things are moving a lot faster; we’re really thinking about how we can turn this into something stable.”

“Long term, my vision is that the sort of interfaces we’re creating will be considered the default. Just like how some kids see a print book and try and ‘pinch and zoom’ the image, I want kids to see an equation and just assume they can move it around.”

Work on the Graspable Math project aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a vibrant community of scholars, catalyzing research, building a more prosperous and innovative Indiana and creating a culture of building and making.

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