June 08, 2012 by Julia Casciato
The winners of the U.S. title in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition were selected to participate in the worldwide finals in Sydney this July for their mathematics-teaching mobile application.
The team, consisting of Drexel seniors Matthew Lesnak, Keith Ayers and N. Taylor Mullen, is one of 10 groups chosen as finalists in the category “Game Design: Phone” for their app titled MathDash. There are 106 teams overall in the finals.
The objective for each team is to create a tech product that would solve a world problem. Teams were encouraged to look at the U.N. Millennium goals to help them come up with ideas.
“We are only one of two U.S. teams at this prestigious international technology competition for students. If we, the U.S., hope to keep our edge in technology, I hope this provides a wake-up call to our political leaders and educators to invest more in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education in the U.S.,” Frank Lee, a computer science professor and the team’s mentor, said.
MathDash is an interactive mobile app geared to help elementary students, grades 1 through 8, learn math in a fun way. The solution to an equation is located at the bottom of the screen while numbers float in bubbles above it. Players must decide which two numbers will equal the given solution via addition, subtraction or multiplication. A progress bar at the top of the screen fills with each correct equation, but decreases as players take more time. Players are able to set the difficulty of the game to basic, easy, medium or hard, in correspondence with the player’s grade in school.
Throughout the creation process, the team faced numerous challenges such as learning how to use a new framework for the competition.
“We used different programming language. We used different tools. There was nothing that could directly be taken from the classroom and applied to our project. But what Drexel really focuses on is teaching how to pick this new stuff up quickly, and that is what really helped us,” Lesnak said.
Another obstacle, which occurred one week prior to the qualification deadline for the national competition, occurred when they made the decision to get rid of their graphic design artist, who was four weeks behind schedule. The team, along with the help of a few friends, created all the artwork themselves within three days.
At the national competition’s showcase in Seattle, high school students were brought in to try out each product for a few minutes. Although the game is designed for students much younger than them, MathDash held some students’ attention for up to 20 minutes.
“It was one of those things where we realized that MathDash could make a difference. It’s almost field testing it to a different audience and really seeing it be successful where we are really trying to make it successful,” Mullen said.
MathDash was first play-tested at Springfield Middle School to get feedback from the game’s targeted audience.
Originally, the game was designed for a PC during the serious game course that Ayers and Lesnak took last spring. They continued working on the game during an independent study over the summer and eventually added Mullen to their team to continue developing it for their senior design project as a mobile app.
“What really worked out was that we were able to do this project for our senior project as well as for the Imagine Cup. This project served both at the same time, and their timelines matched up, which really helped a lot,” Ayers said.
Lee was the professor of the serious game course and assisted the team throughout the competition. Lee had previously been a judge in the competition and guided the team’s decisions based on what the judges are looking for and what will be most effective.
“I told the team from the beginning that I knew what it took to win. They just needed to trust in me to guide them. They did, and I have to say they really worked hard. I’m very proud of all of them,” Lee said.
As the final competition approaches, the team is continuing to polish the game, but their main focus is the 20-minute presentation they will give to the judges July 6-10. Additionally, a side competition of the Imagine Cup is the People’s Choice Award. The team will create and upload a video of MathDash for the general public to vote on starting June 20.