“If more people understood math, we wouldn’t have Trump,” says Maxim Nitsche, the 21-year-old co-founder and CEO of Math42.
To Nitsche math isn’t just about numbers or equations. Math is about proofs: Finding ways to demonstrably prove or disprove a statement, which regardless of the result, yields insight and understanding.
Above all, math is a way of thinking: A stepwise thought process of going from A to B, a skill that permeates through all aspects of an individual’s life and societal realms, including politics, Nitsche explains.
And it all starts when students learn about variables, integers and derivatives in school. Just imagine a typical classroom: one instructor, 30 students, 50 minutes. As concepts become increasingly abstract, is it any wonder that math becomes one of the most dreaded subjects?
Cue Math42: A digital private tutor accessible via app that is meant to supplement institutional education systems for college-aged students and those between grades 5-12. For €24 a year, students have access to the app, which breaks down math problems into their most basic components and “facilitates aha-moments.” You can start with the quadratic equation and click until you see something as basic as four plus one equals five, Nitsche explains.
Nitsche is the first to admit that the platform is no substitute for personal interaction, but that the price is a trade-off, especially in places where tutoring is hard to come by. Many math tutors charge upwards of €15 per hour, making a subscription “a fraction of the cost of tutoring,” he says.
Plus, the app provides “consistency that no human can deliver.”
While most students will never find the quadratic equation “sexy,” they are “very well aware of the implications of math in their life, even if they want to deny it.”
“I don’t know any kids who want bad grades or not to understand something,” Nitsche says. “Humans are curious beings and math is a language to be learned.”
But education is a tough market to break into. The history of math alone begins before the modern ages, back to Babylon around 1900 BC and the Egyptians around 2000 – 1800 BC. Education is a mass phenomenon and math is the crux: math begets physics begets chemistry begets biology.
What academic wants to learn how to improve education from a 21-year-old?
But Nitsche isn’t alone. The team of 10 is based in Berlin and is a bit of a family affair. Nitsche, who came up with the concept of Math42 at the age of 14 in 2010, sold his younger brother, Raphael, and his father, Thomas, on the idea. His father told them to come up with a business plan and the rest is history.
Uncommon for most people, especially children, who are content playing video games, but not for Nitsche, who now in his free time is developing a chemistry app “for fun.”
Even now his age sometimes keeps him from being taken seriously, he says. But for those who look past his soft face, it is self-evident that Nitsche is mature beyond his years. He stands tall, speaks directly and is open to sharing his opinion on a variety of subject matters – from religion’s influence to March Madness.
This seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge is a Nitsche family trait, he says. For example, attending chess competitions or math and chemistry olympiads were common occurrences in their household. He describes the bunch as having a “happy, but not satisfied” mentality, hence the constant quest for new projects and things to learn.
This mentality also extends to Math42: Nitsche and his team are planning on expanding the app to include a user profile that not only identifies where users struggle, but also tracks their progress as they work through equations.
“Based on our understanding of the student, we want Math42 to be able to react, to adapt and to recommend what’s best to do next for him or her,” he says.
The app, which is available in six languages, sees anywhere between 150-500,000 users per month. The variation is the result of students’ needs oscillating through semesters and summer sessions. When it comes to app downloads the US, Germany, China, Russia and Mexico take the lead.
But the intensity of usage is higher in non-industrialized countries, he shares. There people really “value the value of education.”