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Alumni Advance Chemistry Education with Mobile App

Balancing chemical equations, understanding atomic structure, reading the periodic table: whether these concepts thrilled or terrified you, you know the complexity of learning the basics of chemistry. Two Cooper Union alumni, Justin Weinberg '12 and Igor Belyayev ‘12, are working to make chemistry and STEM more appealing to today’s college students. Their company, 101, recently launched a mobile application, Chem101, which provides tools for chemistry professors to engage their students in new ways of learning during lectures.

Mr. Weinberg, who serves as 101’s Chief Executive Officer and Mr. Belyayev, the Chief Technology Officer, met as students in the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. Weinberg began at The Cooper Union in 2008 to study chemical engineering. He fell in love with chemistry in high school and smartly turned this passion into a tutoring business. It was then that he recognized common issues students had with problem solving. For Belyayev, passion also drove him to this line of work. He started building computers when he was 14 years old, following this interest to The Cooper Union’s mechanical engineering department and eventually computer programming. The combination of Weinberg’s vision and Belyayev’s programming skills led them to collaborate on their first app, Chem Pro, in 2011. Chem Pro provided students with a series of videos that Weinberg recorded, tutoring students on how to solve complex chemistry problems. The app received over 500,000 downloads around the world, without any advertising.

While the video lessons were important in explaining the subject, in Weinberg’s eyes, they did not do enough to advance the way chemistry is taught. “The app wasn’t solving the true problem — the way college students learn STEM in courses hasn’t fundamentally changed in a very long time,” he says. “The traditional lecture and the tools students use to learn math and science – textbooks, e-books, response clickers – rely on static content and passive learning. We saw an opportunity to usher in a new generation of active learning.” Active learning is when students engage in problem solving or discussions during a lecture, instead of passively absorbing information, which studies have shown increases student’s success rate in college STEM courses.

The mechanism of a smartphone app was crucial to their goal of active learning. “Current STEM tools are cumbersome and hard to navigate,” Weinberg tells us, referring to antiquated online homework tools and clickers, which feel different from the technology products students use today. The smartphone or tablet was determined to be the best way to deliver their new learning experience. “It’s where students live and breathe nowadays.” They started on this venture shortly after graduating from Cooper Union while working full-time at other jobs. Weinberg entered the doctoral program in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, where he is currently in his fourth year. Belyayev was hired by fellow Cooper Union graduate Rob Marano ‘93 as the Lead Android Developer at Hackerati, a technology consulting firm. Both continued to pursue 101 part-time until they were accepted into Dreamit, an education technology accelerator, in early 2016.

Chem101, a chemistry classroom engagement tool for colleges, is the first app created by 101. With the app, professors can assign chemistry problems to students over the cloud, then see their work and track common mistakes as the students respond in real-time. They first launched a teaching module for Lewis structures, a commonly used model for molecular structure and to predict molecular geometry. The module features a custom molecule drawing tool that allows students to quickly build Lewis structures and simultaneously visualize their shape. Even with Belyayev’s experience, he considered it a great programming challenge. “I hadn’t worked on something so dynamic and visual,” he says. “I had to rewrite the drawing tool multiple times before I got it right.” The app is very intuitive for anyone accustomed to using their smartphone for drawing or simple games.

Last fall, they piloted Chem101 at eight colleges and universities across the country. Over 2,000 students in a variety of class sizes experimented with the app. Cooper Union Associate Professor Ruben Savizky ChE’98, Weinberg’s former research advisor, piloted the app in his general chemistry lecture class at Columbia University. The positive feedback was encouraging: after using the product during the 2-3 week pilot, 77% of students said they preferred it to other existing courseware like clickers and e-books and 40% said Chem101 made them more interested in chemistry. There was also interest from students and professors in using the tool for other chemistry topics and in other courses.

Expanding to include other chemistry topics and eventually other STEM subjects are among 101’s next goals. They also plan to further the tool by partnering with textbook publishers and other companies in the course-tools industry. In addition to funding from Dreamit, they have support from Rough Draft Ventures, Dorm Room Fund and Project Olympus, an entrepreneurial incubator from Carnegie Mellon University. Both Weinberg and Belyayev are excited to be able to pursue their interest full-time. “We can clearly see there’s a need for what we’re building,” Weinberg says.