Math Problems: There’s an App for That

By Dawn Denberg

July, 2017

Everyone and their mother has an idea for an app, and we all hold out hope that perhaps we’ll be the next SnapChat or Uber. While I’d like that as much as the next guy, when my app quietly debuted in the app store several years ago, the prospect of being acquired by a Silicon Valley big wig was the last thing on my mind.

The Problem

Screen shot from ModMath

My husband and I built an app called ModMath out of sheer frustration. Our son Henry, who has dyslexia and ADHD, was falling behind in math because his handwriting is so terrible even he can’t read it. With his working-memory challenges, by the time he gets to step two of any equation, he’s not sure if the number he wrote down was a 4 or a 9. As for creating number columns neat enough to effectively add, subtract, multiply, or divide multi-digit equations, forget it! A 5 from the 10s column, for example, will migrate to the space below a 7 from the 100s column. The final calculations are wildly off base.

His writing disability, known as dysgraphia, commonly co-occurs with dyslexia and ADHD. Although there are plenty of speech-to-text programs to help with writing assignments, there was nothing to help with math.
We didn’t reach the point of desperation without first exhausting every known intervention out there — everything from pencil huggers to alternative grip pens, and special paper with raised lines to keep his writing more uniform. Years of occupational therapy went nowhere, as did more controversial interventions like vision therapy. Through it all, I searched for assistive technology to solve his problem. I queried teachers, learning specialists, and other parents in the LD community. I scoured the internet for leads, but I found nothing.
Our only option was for our son to dictate to me the steps for working through each problem, and I wrote down what he said. This was not a workable long-term solution, unless he wanted me to be his college roommate someday. 

The Solution

One evening, after Henry had gotten through another homework-related meltdown, I voiced my frustration to my husband. “Why don’t we make something?” he suggested. So we did. Our free app uses the iPad touch screen and on-screen keypad so that kids can set up and solve math problems without ever using pencil and paper — think Excel, but without the calculating function.

A student can lay out an assignment on virtual graph paper that can be printed or e-mailed to the teacher. But before you are too impressed with our ingenuity, we didn’t write a single line of code. My husband is a creative director and owns a boutique ad agency. He regularly contracts with software developers to create content for clients. So we knew where to go to get the job done.

Developing this app was a stretch for us financially, but giving up was not an option. Plus, we figured there must be thousands of kids out there just like our son Henry who could also use the app. We were right. To date, nearly 100,000 people have downloaded ModMath. 

We receive a steady stream of letters thanking us for creating the app, and we also get requests. Many express interest in a web-based version, as the iPad is simply out of reach for them financially. Others beg for additional features like a speech-to-text option and a larger keypad. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, we were able to raise enough money to add functions to the app to support basic algebra. As for the other features that users would like, we would attend to every one if money were no object; but we have tapped out our personal resources.

There is a pro version of ModMath available now for which we charge a nominal fee of $5. It offers some additional features, including the ability to copy and paste math problems onto the grid. Every dollar we collect goes towards improving the app and promoting it.

When we began this venture, my husband and I didn’t fully realize the breadth of the need.  We’ve since learned that dysgraphia not only co-occurs with dyslexia but with a host of other issues, including autism and dyspraxia. Children with cerebral palsy and visual impairments have also benefitted from using our app. These parents felt as lost as we did in trying to help their children succeed in math.   

The Future

While the prospect of being the next app instant millionaires is not without appeal, the heart-felt thank you notes we get are payment enough. But if there’s a foundation out there (or just a generous soul), we are certainly not too proud to accept their help.

For more information on ModMath, visit modmath.com, where you can also download the free app. It is also available from itunes.apple.com.

Dawn Margolis Denberg is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. She writes regularly about health, family and interior design. But if she could quit her day job and work full time advocating for children with learning disabilities, she would. 

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