When Treven Stoddard was a freshman at Clemson University, he struggled with passing calculus.
To get through it, he leaned on a lot of external solutions. He also started to examine what topics he struggled with the most — and how technology could make the process easier and more effective.
The result of that exploration became Genubot, an online tool Stoddard built to leverage machine learning to help students learn where they are making mistakes in solving math equations.
His goal went beyond simply helping others like him pass calculus. Stoddard, now a rising senior majoring in computer science at UNC Charlotte, also wanted to boost the number of students accepted into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors at universities.
“Charlotte is a large, up-and-coming metro area that is attracting new high-tech companies. These companies will want to hire local talent, and it will be important for the schools in the Charlotte area to provide a well-prepared pool of talent with the right skills for these new types of STEM jobs.,” Stoddard said. “These students will be able to use our application to ensure they are better prepared to pursue degrees in the STEM fields.”
The discussion of STEM-related programs has become a priority across industries because, as national statistics show, too few college students are pursuing degrees in these fields. In fact, the U.S. lags far behind countries such as China and India in the number of STEM majors graduating from college each year. That supply shortage is creating hiring issues in human resources departments across the country.
And the problem starts in school.
Some 35 percent of those who start off pursuing a STEM degree switch their majors, in part because of the difficulty of math requirements. That’s hurting the students, who are essentially taking themselves out of the running for high-paying, in-demand jobs. It’s also hurting the economy as a whole, with companies large and small struggling to fill positions for more technical roles.
For Stoddard, Genubot isn’t the first time he’s found a business opportunity in solving a problem
In high school, he built an application for mobile trading called Boone to reduce the dangers of meeting strangers from Craigslist.
With Genubot, he’s graduated to using machine-learning algorithms to highlight common problem areas and provide feedback about where the user needs improvement.
For instance, a Genubot user will attempt to solve a series of equations, and based upon his or her performance, the application will offer recommendations, like this one provided in a sample user report: “We see that there are a number of problems that contain The Power Rule that are incorrect. Therefore, we suggest that you brush upon Power Rule and Substitution, as they are fundamental to this skill.”
Today, the beta version of Genubot is able to answer basic and intermediate calculus problems. Stoddard is working with a professor at UNC Charlotte to find ways to improve how Genubot solves increasingly complex calculations. His long-term goal is to expand to other topics, such as statistics, algebra and geometry.
After Stoddard built the app, he went through the Ventureprise customer discovery program, Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps, where he conducted interviews to narrow down his customer segments and polish his value proposition. Stoddard said the program helped him gain skills in entrepreneurship through training in customer discovery and guidance from successful entrepreneurs.
Then, this past spring, Genubot competed against four other university startups in the 49er iChallenge student pitch competition hosted by Ventureprise and 49er Foundry, a business incubator for students. The 49er iChallenge is an opportunity for UNC Charlotte students to pitch their startups to the Ventureprise team for a chance to participate in the Charlotte Venture Challenge https://charlotteventurechallenge.com/ . Genubot was a finalist at the 49er iChallenge and ultimately won first place in the student category at the 2018 Charlotte Venture Challenge and received a $1,000 cash prize.
“The Charlotte Venture Challenge has enabled me to strengthen my presentation skills. I had a great time pitching my business to participants, and listening to the panelist group was incredibly informative. I also value the connections I have made with entrepreneurs in the Charlotte area,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard plans to continue beta testing during the summer and launch during the fall semester. He also want to pilot his application in a calculus course at UNC Charlotte.
While right now he’s the sole Genubot employee, he is looking to add more people to the team.
For college students thinking about launching a company, Stoddard’s advice is to start now.
“Be passionate about your ideas, believe in yourself and start working on your ideas as soon as possible,” he said.
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