Comic books, video games, sci-fi shows - and mathematics: For many, the latter is one of their favorite pastimes, but only for "nerds" like Sheldon Cooper and his friends from "The Big Bang Theory". "Many people associate mathematics with the standardized, formal, technical aspects," says Felix Schwarz, clearing up a misunderstanding, "but in reality these aspects are only in the foreground when mathematics is repeatedly applied to (for school!) standardized problems. If you recite the same poem in the same voice every day in front of the same young listeners, you shouldn't be surprised if the audience finds poetry boring at some point," adds the studied philosopher and mathematician. As for the heroines of the series, mathematics is for him "the smooth opposite of such monotony". It is a playground for the imagination, he says, and its versatility makes it applicable in a wide variety of scenarios.
Completely immersive overall experience
Schwarz and his colleagues Márta J. Vitális and Bence Tornai from the Berlin-based educational start-up Mastory make deliberate use of this diversity: via a mobile phone app, it takes children into a fictional science fiction world in which they have to solve various tasks by thinking, investigating, measuring, counting and explaining - in short, with the help of the superpower of mathematics. "Each mathematical challenge arises organically from the context of the fictional reality of the story; and depending on how the students interact with the product, the story then follows different storylines," the CTO & Co-Founder explains the principle of the platform, which interlocks storytelling with mathematics education. The respective episodes must be "absolutely convincing both from a purely mathematical-didactic point of view and as a mere story", he emphasizes. Thus, just as much importance is attached to character development and interaction as to the mathematical correctness and comprehensibility of the explanations. The result is a "completely immersive overall experience. So much so that students ideally forget that they are also doing mathematics 'on the side'," says Schwarz, hoping for a flow effect similar to that of games and gamification applications. Since the app is not only offered as a single-player game, but also in class mode, entire learning groups can work together on complex challenges and thus promote their social skills. This and the strengthening of critical thinking - as an individual or in a team - are further desired side effects of this theatre pedagogical approach.
To achieve these effects, Mastory, founded in 2020, relies on continuous guidance of learners through a live chat with the characters in the story. By communicating with the AI chatbot, "users can experience situationally that they are not alone with their questions, ambiguities and uncertainties, and that this is by no means a reason to close oneself off to the subject or not to take on the challenge in the first place," says the graduate of Humboldt University in Berlin and Kyoto University. "Our central message here is 'you are not alone' - enriched with very concrete tips and strategies on how to break down even the most difficult problem to such an extent that it can be solved in the end through joint efforts."
In addition to the technology, the students also have the teachers on their side: via a dashboard, they can observe and track the activities, adapt episodes to their own teaching pace and check whether the artificial intelligence is moderating the chat correctly or whether questions remain open. Mastory provides intuitive tutorials and help mechanisms so that teachers can use these functions properly. "The acceptance among teachers we have experienced so far is correspondingly high," Felix Schwarz is pleased to say, "especially in the USA, which is still much further ahead in the area of digital learning, but also here in Germany.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Mastory's focus on the USA has another reason besides its pioneering role in EdTech: in August 2021, the learning platform founded by Freie Universität Berlin was the only international organisation selected for the second phase of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Balance the Equation" programme. The goal of the highly endowed funding programme is to support students, especially in the Algebra 1 course in US American hotspot schools: "We could completely identify with Gates' vision of offering all students truly equal opportunities instead of simply reproducing socioeconomically anchored disadvantages," Felix Schwarz explains the decision to apply for the funding award as a young German start-up.
The candidacy fell into a difficult interim period for Felix Schwarz and his co-founder Márta J. Vitális: the two knew each other from their mathematics studies and had created the predecessor project Mathalaxie together. This involved "project weeks and holiday courses for primary school classes in which the children plan and ultimately carry out an imaginary space journey and go through various mathematical activities to do so", is how Schwarz describes the project, which even found its way into teacher training at the Freie Universität Berlin. "Until Corona came along and we had to set a different course," adds the mathematician. In search of ways to offer the predominantly analogue format with IoT technology and "smart" teaching material, they not only developed a digital concept and secured a Berlin start-up grant from the Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises as well as funding from the European Social Fund. Marketing and finance expert Bence Tornai also joined the team as the third co-founder. "Step by step, a privately initiated hobby project became a company," says Schwarz.
Applying for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Balance the Equation" programme was a huge milestone along the way. As this was geared towards a much older audience, the core team of freelancers from all over the world decided to "reinvent Mathalaxy digitally and for a youth audience." With success: "We suddenly found ourselves grantees alongside ten other names, all US-based (and significantly bigger)," explains the CTO & Co-Founder. "Since then, we have benefited not only from 1.1 million US dollars in funding, but also from the Foundation's unique network, which can hardly be overestimated as a door opener for a wide variety of actors both inside and outside the USA."
The funding itself is primarily intended to cover the high development costs in order to soon bring a product to market that "sets new standards for teaching mathematics". A pilot study with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is to test whether and how this succeeds in practice. Due to the interest of teachers, parents and individual students, the platform will first be accessible via individual accounts with an episode-based pay-as-you-go pricing model. A few months later, a subscription-based school flat rate will complement the offer.
Localisability as a recipe for success
What is happening only in the USA in the first step is also planned for Europe - "as soon as our capacities allow." Mastory does not want to lose its connection to Berlin, where the start-up was founded and still "sits". On the contrary: "We paid attention to the localisability of our app from the very beginning - if only because we always test it first with partner schools in Berlin (in German) and Debrecen (in Hungarian)," assures Schwarz.
It is an imaginably good starting point, but the three-member core team does not want to rest on its laurels. In addition to the long-term goal of "reintegrating Mathalaxy into the Mastory platform as a mainstay for younger children", Schwarz can imagine expanding the approach to other subjects. "Since a not inconsiderable part of our Business Logic is based on the analysis of formulas and graphs, other STEM subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology or computer science come into consideration first and foremost for a direct continuation," says the entrepreneur. And the approach could also possibly be transferred to languages, history, social sciences or ethics. "Especially since we expect that at the current pace of AI development, an analysis of student activities in such areas will be possible in the next three to four years in a quality that meets the highest didactic-professional standards," he says, seeing potential for activating even more superpowers with the help of technology.