Business Startups Technology

Start-Up Spotlight: Maplesoft Makes Math Accessible and Engaging

Maplesoft

Sometimes, the word “math” has the ability to strike fear into a person’s soul. Maplesoft is on a mission to change that.

The math software company is used across all industries—including by NASA—in many different ways. However, their most recent venture, Maple Calculator, brings the software company back to its roots: education. 

Geared towards students, Maple Calculator aims to take the stress and anxiety out of mathematics, while also engaging students with all that it has to offer.

“Mathematics is everywhere. STEM is everywhere. Even if you don’t become a rocket scientist, at some point you will think about buying a car or buying a house and you have to deal with the interest rates and you have to know what that means,” said Laurent Bernardin, President and CEO of Maplesoft. “Or on the news, you might hear some statistics, like COVID-19 cases have increased by 50%. What does that mean? What does that really mean?”

The Maplesoft team was committed to creating a tool that wasn’t going to help students cheat, but open their eyes to the complexities and abilities of mathematics.

As a mobile device app, Maple Calculator is available for students to use in a way that they’re used to. From the click of a phone’s camera, Maple Calculator’s powerful AI technology can solve math problems, check homework, and explore graphs in 3D within seconds. In addition, by keeping the app free of charge, Maplesoft reinforces their mission to make math accessible for all.

“I know that for my kids, that’s where they spend the majority of their time: on their devices,” said Bernardin. “So, we wanted to make sure that we take everything that Maplesoft can offer to those kids and bring it to a device that they are using all the time. It’s right there in front of them and ready to help.”

With as many as 18,000 high school students in the Toronto District School Board enrolled in virtual learning, at-home help is needed more than ever.

Although Maplesoft has been in business for three decades, Maple Calculator keeps them at the forefront of innovation within the mathematics and education sphere. For this week’s Start-Up Spotlight, Bay Street Bull spoke with Laurent Bernardin about making mathematics accessible and engaging with today’s youth.

Laurent Bernardin, President and CEO of Maplesoft.

Q&A

Maplesoft has worked with some big companies before, like NASA and the Canadian space agency, but you’ve recently turned your focus to helping students with their online homework. How did the Maple Calculator come about?

We’ve been doing this for 30 years now, and the focus on students and instructors and education has always been our main focus. Over the years, we have expanded and there’s many organizations now, across many different industries, that are using Maple. But, at its core, that drive to help instruct, and help students in particular, has always been there and has always been very strong. One thing that drives that Maplesoft is that we believe that mathematics matters. It’s important. You see it everywhere, right? 

You mentioned NASA. When NASA sends a rocket to Mars, well, a lot of math is involved getting that trajectory right, planning the mission, and making sure it’s successful. And if there’s a new car being designed, there’s math involved in getting the design right. In healthcare, when people are looking for a new therapeutic method, there’s math involved again, right? They want to know what the options are and what is likely to succeed and whatnot. And then they get the test results and they have to evaluate what those numbers mean. So, math is everywhere and we think that’s really important. 

And we think that has to start with the youngest generation. I mean, it’s important to convey that appreciation for math as early as possible, because it will be so important—whatever you do in the future—that you know what tools you have and what you can use.

And with the online calculator, that’s a more of a newer development, right? Students can use their phone and they can take the picture of a problem and the app will help them with at home learning.

Yeah! We have a mobile app that we call the Maple Calculator. The driving force behind that is when you look at students, as soon as they hit high school, many have a phone or tablet of some sort. Right? And, I know that for my kids, that’s where they spend the majority of their time: on their devices. So, we wanted to make sure that we take everything that Maplesoft can offer to those kids and bring it to a device that they are using all the time. It’s right there in front of them and ready to help.

Can you explain how it’s more advanced than the average scientific calculator and how it works. The software behind it all?

Yeah, so we have a long history there. Maplesoft is a very powerful part on a desktop, it’s been around for many years. It’s used by students and it’s used by rocket scientists, right? So there’s a lot of power there. With the Maple Calculator, we’re bringing a glimpse of that to a smaller device and right into the hands of a student. They can do a lot more [with Maple Calculator] than they can do on your average graphing calculator that you may buy at a department store. It goes way beyond that. It can with the simple problems, but then that same student, as they progress through school and maybe to university or college, this same Maple Calculator can take them all the way to where they want to go, because they have that help. 

We made the experience using the Maple Calculator as engaging as possible, because we want to catch the attention of students. We want to show them, ‘Okay, this is not just the numbers, there’s something behind this’. You see a graph of what it means, you see a 3D graph, depending on what you do. When you enter mathematics, we don’t just give you a number that says, ‘Okay, this is the result.’ We tell you the cause of different mathematical concepts, what you can do with the equation, what it might mean in a different context, and give you multiple answers.Then you get a better sense of, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that you could do this.’ and ‘This is interesting. Let me probe a little further.’

We didn’t set out to build yet another tool that helps students cheat on their homework. That’s not the point. The point is to give them insight, give them hopefully a bit of a love for mathematics—at least a glimpse into that—and encourage them to go further.

For sure. And why do you think it is so important to get students, and people when they’re still a young age, interested in STEM?

Like I said, mathematics is everywhere. STEM is everywhere. Even if you don’t become a rocket scientist, at some point you will think about buying a car or buying a house and you have to deal with the interest rates and you have to know what that means. Or on the news, you might hear some statistics, like COVID-19 cases have increased by 50%. What does that mean? What does that really mean? I think it’s really important to have a sense of mathematics so that you can better interpret, figure things out and make better decisions.

And Maple Calculator is free, correct?

Maple Calculator is completely free. Again, we want to engage the students. We want to eventually, hopefully lead them and expose them to our Maple products. Which will take them much, much further [in mathematics] than the calculator does. It’s a really, really good start. And it’s a free tool that they can just go to the app store and download and use.

Why was it important to you to make it accessible for everybody and not have a barrier to accessing this kind of technology?

It comes down to our core belief that this is so important—that we have to get those kids engaged. I have kids in school, and sometimes they come home and say ‘Oh, everybody is freaking out about math. It’s so hard. I’m not sure if I can do this.’ Even though they’re actually pretty good at it. 

I think there’s a lot of apprehension about math being hard, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools with the right mindset, It’s not scary. It doesn’t have to be scary. And it will be very meaningful for those kids growing up.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything and a reason why so many students need access to something like this is because a lot of kids are doing schooling from home and they don’t have someone in person that they can go talk to, to help through a math problem right now. Did that have any effect on Maple Calculator and how you guys are running?

Yes and no. At the core, it hasn’t changed anything. Our mission is always to build the best tools for helping with math and with STEM in general, and to bring those tools to wherever the students and users might be. So, in that sense, no, it hasn’t changed.

On the other hand, it is now more important than ever that students have access to those tools wherever they might be, whether they are at school or at home or on the go. Also we recently started moving our Maple product online so you can use it in a web browser as well. So, the same direction to help these students and make Maple accessible to them so that they can use it whatever the situation.

Was there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about in regards to the Maple Calculator or what you guys are doing over at Maplesoft right now?

I’ll repeat again that mathematics is so important [laughs]. We have to do everything we can to convey that to everybody and especially with kids. With all the concepts that we have in this world, a lot of the solutions are based on science and based on making the right decisions. And it comes down to understanding what the problems really are, what they mean and what kind of solutions will work and what will not work. At the root of that you will always find mathematical problems and mathematical issues that you need to deal with.

You guys have already done so much work in the mathematics field—30 years worth—but what is your hope for the future of Maplesoft?

We will always work on improving the breadth of mathematics and standards that we can cover and help with. There’s never an end in sight, there’s always more we can be doing. On the other hand it’s also really, really important to make the user experience as pleasant as possible and as easy as possible. Remove any barriers and show that it’s not scary: you can do this. Here is a tool set that you can use. It’s a really important action for us to continue down that path of making math more and more accessible.