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Aashna Saraf '21 Develops Award-Winning App to Help Kids Love Math

Cartoon girl with logo that reads ROOT

For pre-K-12 students worldwide, schooling and learning have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aashna Saraf ’21 entered a newly-created competition to help address the global education crisis sparked by COVID-19. She and her co-founder, Neil Vakharia, developed a game app that promotes learning and regular assessment of math milestones for young children that was selected as a Catalyst Prize Winner in the Futures Forum on Learning: Tools Competition.

As a Catalyst Prize Winner, Saraf and Vakharia received up to $25,000 to help fund development of their app, Root. The Tools Competition was launched in 2020 by Schmidt Futures and Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin with the aim of accelerating recovery from COVID-19-related learning loss while also advancing the field of learning engineering.

Saraf is majoring in psychological science with a focus on developmental psychology. Her interest in the field was sparked in part by her family. As the youngest, Saraf grew up in a large family with many aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and her nieces and nephews in Mumbai, India.

“I became the fun aunt,” says Saraf, who enjoyed playing with and caring for her younger nieces and nephews. Saraf says she was drawn to early childhood development thanks to one of her nephews. “My nephew who was 8 at the time was interested in Legos. We would go on ‘problem walks’ around our community, our building and I would ask him: ‘What problems do you see?’ ‘What do you want to fix?’ ‘What can you do to solve that?’”

Saraf says the walks led to her nephew identifying a problem: a bad odor from open sewers. His solution: “A Lego robot that releases a nice odor. We ended up designing it, then building and programming it. For two hours our robot sprayed two perfume bottles around the community!”

As a senior, Saraf wanted to do her psychological science thesis project on something related to child development. “Because of COVID, I knew it would be a learning app but I needed some extra funding.”

She first learned of the Tools Competition through social media. Saraf follows many philanthropists and entrepreneurs; she says she’s always wanted to be an entrepreneur in the early education tech space. With the support of her mentor, Professor of Psychological Science Patricia Smiley, Saraf entered the competition.

Professor Smiley was an enthusiastic supporter: “Aashna’s research into the fundamental concepts that predict children’s numeracy skills when they enter formal schooling was so thorough that I couldn’t help but get excited. It was a privilege to guide her toward building games in animated worlds to help children practice ideas of ‘more’ and ‘less,’ build their spatial memory capacity, and understand counting. Aashna just knows how to connect with young children; as a team Aashna and I were able to imagine games that are engaging and instructive, and at the same time, yielded amazing data on learning of early math.”

Throughout the process, Saraf also counted on the support of her alumnus mentor Ajoy Vase ’07, who she connected with through Sagehen Connect, the official Pomona College alumni directory.

In order to design the app, Saraf partnered with Vakharia, a senior computer science major at Northwestern University, whom she met through a mutual friend. Together, they entered the competition.

Saraf admits she wasn’t expecting to go too far. She soon realized when she reached the first phase of the competition, that this was not a student competition—she was competing with researchers, teachers, professors, technologists and ed tech leaders. As she realized the scope of the global competition, she felt nervous, but she and Vakharia continued to advance through all three phases.

The app has 14 mini-games. Before receiving funding, building out one game took two and a half months. Saraf really needed the funding to hire animators and game developers to improve the user interface and accelerate the timeline.

“It was taking way too long; I was trying to figure out the animation and [Vakharia] was trying to figure out the AI. I kept thinking, ‘I have to get this funding, or I won’t have a thesis project.’ So, I started working on it harder to get my thesis project done,” says Saraf.

Currently, Saraf and Vakharia have received half the funding from the prize and have hired game developers. Through her connections with a preschool in Mumbai, where she interned three years ago thanks to funding from Pomona College Internship Program (PCIP), she has piloted the app with 120 children between the ages of 3-6 in a randomized control experiment.

Currently in her final semester of college, Saraf is busy wrapping up her senior thesis while also making big decisions about her future. She’s been accepted to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in their master’s degree program in Learning Design, Innovation and Technology (LDIT). She also has a few job offers in the ed tech sector that she’s contemplating before heading to Harvard.

Her long-term goal: to improve learning outcomes for all children in India. Professor Smiley agrees that for Saraf, this ambitious goal is one she’ll be able to reach.

“I see myself doing that by creating accessible, digital learning experiences that can support children and the people in children’s lives,” says Saraf. “Something that can reach children facing the greatest adversities at scale.”