School Yourself, a start-up founded by Zachary D. Wissner-Gross and John Lee, won a $25,000 inaugural grant from the Hertz Foundation’s Newman Entrepreneurial Fund for a project reimaging the traditional textbook.
The New York and Boston-based team is trying to recreate education from the ground up by reformatting textbooks to take advantage of the interactive features on a computer, tablet, or mobile device, explained Wissner-Gross, who completed his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard in late August.
Wissner-Gross demonstrated their “Hands-On Calculus” book, set to roll out in a couple of weeks. Containing far less text than the average textbook—he estimated it would only be around 50 pages if printed—it primarily uses interactive activities, such as asking students to find a function that is its own derivative by finger-drawing functions and watching the derivatives change in real-time.
School Yourself is part of a general trend towards more tech-savvy education, a trend that also includes the growing deluge of online courses like Harvard and MIT’s edX, Wissner-Gross said. Other start-ups have a similar model to School Yourself, but there are almost none in the STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—fields, Wissner-Gross said.
A former Physics 15a: “Introductory Mechanics and Relativity” teaching fellow, Wissner-Gross said the project combined his love of teaching with his fascination with how games engage people.
Attributing the latter to his experiences as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said his dormmates would “all play games with each other all the time.” Instead of parties, he said, they would engage in Super Smash Bros or Risk soirees.
Solidifying their vision after getting the opportunity to write for Apple’s iBookstore, the School Yourself team realized a few textbook giants controlled 90 percent of the market, but did not take advantage of any touchscreen features.
“We wanted to put together the best [textbook] possible, and make sure the user is touching the screen at every point and doing everything themselves,” said Wissner-Gross, rather than just providing a ligher verson of the original text.
The resulting start-up, School Yourself, was the runner-up in Harvard’s inaugural President’s Challenge earlier this year, using its $15,000 prize to help launch their first two books: “Trigonometry” and “Hands-On Precalculus”, which are currently the two highest rated math textbooks on the iBookstore, Wissner-Gross said.
The team is beginning to contact schools, a harder field because “they’re more set in their ways [and] on tighter budgets than families,” Wissner-Gross said.
“Scalability has been solved by the internet,” he said, referencing the ability of groups like School Yourself to reach millions around the world.
In the future, the team hopes to track user interaction in order to adapt the books to better fit behaviors.
Additionally, Wissner-Gross said he wants to make the activities even more game-like.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
CORRECTION: Nov. 5
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that School Yourself co-founder Zachary D. Wissner-Gross completed his Ph.D. last spring; in fact, he defended his thesis in late August. It also incorrectly said that the two books created by School Yourself were the highest rated books in the iBookstore; they are in fact the highest rated math textbooks but not the highest rated books.