Okanagan Tech Firm Turning Math on Its Head with Innovative Learning App

For most students, learning math is never fun. Especially for those trying to make sense of the more advanced and complicated subjects of algebra and calculus.

So in order to alleviate some of the stress involved with trying to grasp those concepts, one tech company in the Okanagan has come up with a solution. Yes, there’s an app for that.

Mathtoons Media is the brainchild of company CEO Kristin Garn, a math teacher who set up her company in Kelowna after moving to the Okanagan from Winnipeg.

“Coming up with the idea wasn’t a hard pick at all. I come from a math background and I tend to look at things analytically,” she explained to Techvibes. “I am still a math teacher, and back when I taught in Winnipeg there were a lot of immigrants there. Many were from Asia, and when I taught calculus they had already learned calculus. It was basically like teaching a class of experts.”

But those students were an anomaly, and most Canadian students at the high school level are not educationally prepared for the advanced mathematics taught at the University level.

“I moved here to Kelowna after that, and took some private students, so I’ve been running this private tutoring business for 20 years,” she says. “I tend to see University-bound, high school students that are not at all ready to enter into the world of University mathematics. I was really seeing a decreasing level of graduating skills. I usually tutor from grade 9 to second year university, and that’s our Mathtoons target. It’s the most important age for developing cognitive ability for the rest of your upper level education and working life.”

Garn spent a few years researching how students go about learning advanced math and how they feel about it, and came up with some definitive answers. Most important was to find out where the pain point is in the experience of absorbing the difficult concepts

“I asked my students, and they basically said ‘We’re dead bored. We never open this textbook, and when we do it doesn’t speak to us.’ And then they held up their smartphones and iPads,” she says. “‘I want to learn on this,’ they’d say. Ok, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure that one out.” 

So Garn decided to take what she learned from her students and expand her research to include the education system.

“I discovered that other educational institutions were looking at the iDevices as a big way of teaching. I spent two years researching the future of education, picking ages 14 to 22. And just last week, I met with two large university department heads, and have had a lot of phenomenal educational support in Alberta and BC,” she says.

What’s most interesting about the Mathtoons set of apps, available on the iTunes store, is that they haven’t even officially been released yet. How is this so?

“We got some funding from Mitacs, and took that funding and created our Minimum Viable Product. We basically asked ourselves, ‘How can we get advanced math to be taught on this?’”—she holds up her iPhone—”And can we make it easy enough that teachers can develop their own questions for the app?’”

To help develop their product, Garn and her team have just signed their second Contribution Agreement with the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program. NRC-IRAP is providing advisory services and funding of up to $221,000 to support Mathtoons’ development of collaborative authoring tools for teachers as well as personalized mobile practice applications for students.

Over the next 12 months, the Mathtoons team will work with key educational consultants and advisors to develop web-accessed content authoring software which will enable educators to easily and rapidly design and deploy engaging skills practice applications for student’s personal mobile devices.

“The future of math and science is in the hands of our students today,” says Garn. “If we can increase interest and ability in these areas by encouraging quality student mobile practice, we can help build a stronger education for Canada’s future scientists and engineers.”