How a Math Algorithm Could Educate the Whole World – for Free

Mathematics professor Po-Shen Loh has created Expii, a free education tool that democratizes learning by turning your smartphone into a tutor.

Po-Shen Loh: About three years ago I became the national coach of the United States International Math Olympian Team. I was very happy for a day thinking this is very interesting. But the next day I started to think that maybe I should do something with this. And I decided that I wanted to focus not only on training an elite group of students but trying to do as much as I could to boost the baseline mathematics capability in this entire country.

Unfortunately I had no money, no connections and only one person. So the only thing I knew was mathematics, algorithms and this probability and network theory. So after thinking for some time I actually came to an idea which was based on using these core mathematical areas that I'd been working with to actually build a solution for education that could be delivered for free on every smart phone. This is actually the project I'm working on right now called Expii. 

Our principle is that actually you could turn that smart phone into a virtual tutor which automates what a person would get if they hired a tutor. It wouldn't be as good as a tutor, but it could get very close. And if you could deliver a free almost tutor on every smart phone in the United States you might solve equity problems, you might be able to allow everyone, even if they live in a different ZIP Code, to be able to access this tutor, which previously had only been accessible to people who are quite wealthy. Because today the cost of a tutor is in the $30 an hour, $20 an hour, $50 an hour depending on how you look at it. If you can reduce that to zero dollars an hour you would actually open up this accessibility to everyone. 

If we realize that what we're trying to build is this virtual tutor then you actually, again, can start to conceptualize well knowledge happens to be all of these concepts linked together in this network. Then the problem becomes if you have this network how do you mathematically analyze where a person should go next? That can be done by using probability and statistics to find new ways to measure how much each person understands about each concept. Statistics, because the way that one would measure this is by asking them questions. 

The experience someone has is they indicate what they want to learn and then the system starts to pitch questions at them, questions that they would need to know how to answer in order to understand what they claim they want to understand. As the questions come, based on people's responses to the questions, the system adjusts the difficulty of the questions and where the next questions come from in the same way that a human tutor adjusts their line of questioning based on whether a person is successful or not successful at the previous question. If the student reaches a point where they are hopelessly confused, meaning they don't know how to do this question at all, then the system suggests that maybe they could read some explanations.

As you can see it turns the lesson flow upside down. It's not that the class comes first and then the homework and then the exam, the first thing that comes is the exam essentially followed by these practice problems, which adapt to you, followed by the class for anything that you don't know. The idea is that this should cure boredom at the high end and also cure confusion at the struggling end. 

I actually started this with a brilliant Carnegie Mellon undergraduate student and then the two of us built this system together. But when you start with no resources you need to think of ways to actually generate all of this content in a way which doesn't cost enormous amount of resources. And we took inspiration from Wikipedia. Our system aggregates all of the questions and explanations that anyone in the world might want to contribute, uses voting like a website called Quora in order to find out which content is strong, and uses statistics, the algorithms, to figure out what questions are easy and difficult. So actually in the end it turns out that it sucks in all of this content, it licenses it all with the creative commons license like Wikipedia and then puts it all across on a platform that anyone with a smart phone can use. 

So as we keep developing these mathematics and algorithms our goal is actually to deliver free education to all of the world using a system that self-organizes in the same way that mathematics self-organizes from its basic assumptions.

 

Po-Shen Loh is a Hertz Foundation Fellow, Princeton-educated mathematician, Carnegie Mellon professor, the head coach of the U.S. International Math Olympiad team, and now he’s adding start-up entrepreneur to his knock-out resume. Loh has created Expii, a math and science education tool that aims to turn every smartphone into a tutor. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, he pursued a PhD in combinatorics at the Pure Math Department at Princeton University.


The Hertz Foundation

mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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