Fueling Innovation Free Enterprise Staff  | December 15, 2016

This Boston EdTech Startup Captures, Shares, and Replicates Students’ ‘Aha’ Moments

In a city teeming with education technology (edtech) companies, one Boston-based startup has carved out a niche by taking aim at an age-old mystery: How do students learn math?

Started in 2013, CueThink has built a unique mobile peer-to-peer learning platform that’s designed to help students improve Common Core math problem-solving skills. To do this, the company enables students to create and swap image galleries and video vignettes that visually depict how they arrived at their solutions. In other words, CueThink-ers can show — not just tell — peers how they think.

Sheela Sethuraman — who describes herself as an “entrepreneur at the intersection of education, technology, and media” — launched CueThink out of PayPal’s StartTank incubator and with a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Grant program.

The 20-year edtech veteran and pioneer has long been intrigued by how kids wrap their heads around math. But it was one particular defining moment that inspired her to build a business around that phenomenon.

At the time, Sethuraman was testing an interactive math skills assessment software tool she’d created with then-colleagues at Pearson Education. They were closely recording students’ “think-aloud” processes as they used the tool.

“I was struck by the process the expert student took to solve a math problem versus a novice student,” Sethuraman told Free Enterprise. “The former was very methodical, strategic, and deliberate. I became interested in figuring out how to capture this process visually and aurally, both the ‘ah-ha’ moments and the missteps.”

Today, CueThink digitally captures students’ breakthrough moments, those critical snippets of time and ingenuity, when they take risks, break past mental blocks, and push themselves to think harder and smarter.

Sethuraman’s collaborative teaching tool — originally available in 2014 as an iPad app, and now also on laptop and desktop computers — enables students in grades two through 12 to work together in virtual groups, learning from each other’s tricks, strategies, and — yes — mistakes, too.

Today, thousands of students throughout the U.S. use CueThink, including early adopters in public school districts in California, Maine, Maryland, and, fittingly, the startup’s home state of Massachusetts.

Students in class learning

Anchoring CueThink out of Boston was a conscious choice, Sethuraman said, one that had much to do with connecting with the Boston Public Schools district, particularly its openness to advancing (and allotting funds for) digital classroom technology.

“Boston Public Schools is large and diverse, with a range of technology affordances,” she said. “Partnering with [the district’s] technology and curricular leadership pushed us to rapidly develop implementation models that work for a diverse range of teaching and curricular goals.”

Boston has also carved out a reputation as one of the country’s top breeding grounds for innovative edtech ventures and companies. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education, and Ellevation Education, have recently staked claims in the sector.

In the latest Innovation That Matters study, Boston ranked third out of 25 U.S. cities in startup growth and activity. Beantown also ranked number one in overall competitiveness, due to its exceptional network cohesiveness amongst its many educational institutions and tech entrepreneurs, like Sethuraman.

Looking ahead, she plans on staying the startup course in Boston, where she said investors are “focused more on the impact and sustainability” of a product like hers, “compared to the West Coast, which is a bit more skewed toward large-scale usage.”

In the meantime, Sethuraman is slowly but surely working with area schools to develop metrics that prove CueThink’s efficacy in improving student outcomes.

“Adoption of edtech products is slow, but rightly so,” she said. “Schools want to see that the product will be well-used and that it will have the impact desired.”