Nhon Ma of Numerade: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

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“TikTok-ify” the content — We already know that students spend hours on TikTok, so if you can’t beat them, why not join them? Short-form, bite-sized educational videos resonate best with students, providing snackable content that they can watch several times to fully digest the material. In fact, engagement time on Numerade videos can range from double to triple the video’s entire length, meaning students are interacting with the content beyond just skipping through to the answer.

As a part of our interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Nhon Ma.

Nhon Ma is CEO and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Numerade, an education technology startup. Numerade’s primary goal is to democratize access to quality STEM learning resources and close the educational opportunities gap. Nhon has combined his passion for education with his extensive experiences in EdTech and AI to change the educational landscape and improve learning outcomes for students everywhere.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

I saw the disparities in education firsthand growing up in Los Angeles. I went to private schools and received a quality education, but many of my peers did not have the same opportunities. It opened my eyes to the discrepancies of access to educational resources, especially tutoring. While my friends had access, taking the bus home to South Central LA showed me that this wasn’t the case for many of these students. This is what led me to co-found Numerade, an education technology platform that uses AI and short-form videos to tutor students and help them learn and study the STEM curriculum. I believe that everyone deserves a quality education, regardless of their background. Numerade is my way of giving back to the community and helping to level the playing field.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would advise all young folks to try newer, entrepreneurial initiatives if they start at bigger companies. You’ll be able to learn so much at a fast pace. I was just starting out in my career and I landed a role at Google during their early days. I was fortunate enough to be part of some of Google’s newer product teams that focus on the traditional ad market (e.g. print, radio, TV, etc.). It was like being part of a startup within Google. We were presenting a business review of the Prints Ads Initiative, and I was invited to join a meeting with the Google founders, Larry and Sergey. I was very young at the time and shocked that I was even in the same room with them, let alone meeting them. I soaked it all in.

In the meeting, we presented the health of the business, and the numbers were looking great. As this happened, Larry jumped in and said, “This is great progress, now how can we 10X this?” He didn’t say anything else in the meeting. This left such an indelible impression on me and changed my entire perspective. I dreamed more. I thought a lot about what was possible. Being grounded in reality is pragmatic, but one needs to be open to what can be. This was a great lesson for me at such an early stage of my career.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

AI is everywhere and it can play a positive role in education. Numerade recently introduced an AI chatbot tutor, AceChat, which can understand students’ unique study habits and learning patterns at a cost much lower than private tutoring. It also takes the stigma away from answering questions about which students may be shy or embarrassed to raise their hand in class. AceChat learns students’ learning styles by the questions asked and doesn’t just give students the answer to questions — it helps them deepen their knowledge. Ace will proactively ask if students want more help with a problem and include options to explain the answer, provide a short answer or give tips for the questions, breaking it down into steps that lead to additional guided prompts. Students can even ask Ace to explain something in a textbook way, or a way that a teenager would understand. Once Ace learns the students’ learning style, over time it knows what type of ‘voice’ or tone explanation level they need. The results so far are promising — students are engaged, spending more time on the platform than they did before AI was available, and I’m excited about what the future holds as we gather more data from users, the technology becomes more sophisticated, and we continue to introduce new features to students.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

Numerade was born of my personal experience of experiencing education inequity firsthand. My mother, a Vietnamese refugee, worked as a seamstress in a factory in downtown LA, earning 10 cents per garment she sewed, and my father was a janitor at the same school I attended. My parents depended on LAUSD not only for our education but for our meals and childcare while they worked. I knew from a young age that my biggest chance out of our poverty was through taking my education seriously, and taking advantage of any resources and opportunities I could get.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

It’s difficult to give a straightforward answer since the US education system is vast and complex, with many different factors to consider. There are both strengths and weaknesses to the system. On the positive side, there are many excellent schools and teachers who are doing great work to prepare students for success in a constantly changing world. However, there are also many challenges and inequalities that exist within the system, such as a lack of funds and access to vital resources. That’s one of the reasons we started Numerade so that quality STEM study resources can become more accessible.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

1) Professional development — This is a huge area in which we excel. The majority of U.S.-based school districts require educators to participate in regular lectures and training on everything from upskilling to promoting greater social-emotional learning throughout schools.

2) Social-emotional learning — This is another area in which we excel, as schools across America are taking initiatives to improve trauma-informed teaching.

3) Literacy rate — We have a 99% literacy rate. When you consider that for the vast majority of Americans, English may not be their first language, that becomes an astounding statistic.

4) Technological literacy — This is another area the U.S. handles well when you consider the amount of funding that is used to provide technology and relevant training in the classrooms.

5) Diversity and inclusion — The average US school environment has become significantly more diverse and inclusive over the years. At an unprecedented rate, students are able to learn and gain invaluable insights into the lives and cultures of those around them.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

1) Better embrace advanced technology like AI — Students, educators, and administrators can all benefit from AI and its immense number of applications, and should be viewing it as an ally and assistive partner, rather than a threat or foe. For students, AI can enhance the overall learning experience and tailor it to their individual needs. Educators and administrators can use it to simplify administrative functions, data collection, grading, and a variety of other time-consuming tasks. Arguably one of the biggest improvements AI will bring is in personalized education. No two students learn the same way and AI can quickly design a curriculum with unique study plans customized to the individual. Personalized learning isn’t new, but it’s often difficult for already busy educators to provide due to the significant amount of time spent gathering data for each student and then creating a plan based on those insights. Additionally, AI will likely assist in simplifying administrative tasks and providing teachers more time to offer individualized attention in the classroom.

2) Create more equity — The U.S. education system is funded primarily by local property taxes, which means that schools in low-income areas often have fewer resources than schools in high-income areas. This can lead to a significant gap in educational opportunities for students from different backgrounds. Numerade is tackling inequalities in education by giving students from all socioeconomic backgrounds access to quality instruction, which could help to bring underrepresented students into STEM careers.

3) Curriculum — The U.S. curriculum is often outdated and does not reflect the skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in the 21st century. The curriculum should be updated to focus on critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration, as well as the core subjects of math, science, reading, and writing.

4) Assessment — The way that students are assessed in the US is often too focused on standardized tests. This can lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and a focus on test preparation, rather than on deep learning. Assessment should be more holistic and should measure a variety of skills and knowledge.

5) Teacher quality — Teachers are the single most important factor in student success. However, the US has a shortage of qualified teachers, and many teachers are underpaid and overworked. This can make it difficult to attract and retain high-quality teachers, especially in low-income areas.

6) School climate — The school climate is the overall environment in which students learn and grow. A positive school climate is essential for student success. It should be safe, supportive, and engaging.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

1) Embrace the benefits of AI — When parents and teachers embrace AI instead of shying away from it, they’ll be shocked how easily they’ll be able to engage young people. AI enhances the overall learning experience for students, providing instant, step-by-step solutions, in-depth explanations and common mistakes that may occur while solving problems. AI can also assist students with brainstorming essay topics, proofreading and revisions,and assist with custom test preparation.

2) Tailor to students’ learning styles, rather than other way around — Arguably one of the biggest improvements AI will bring is in personalized education. No two students learn the same way and AI can quickly design a curriculum with unique study plans customized to the individual. Personalized learning isn’t new but it’s often difficult for already-busy educators to take the time to gather data on each student and then create a plan based on those insights.

3) “TikTok-ify” the content — We already know that students spend hours on TikTok, so if you can’t beat them, why not join them? Short-form, bite-sized educational videos resonate best with students, providing snackable content that they can watch several times to fully digest the material. In fact, engagement time on Numerade videos can range from double to triple the video’s entire length, meaning students are interacting with the content beyond just skipping through to the answer.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

In the U.S., women account for only 27% of all STEM professionals, despite representing nearly 50% of the entire workforce. That’s a huge problem, especially when you consider the economic impact that increasing that proportion could have amid a growing skills gap in the industry, as demand for computer scientists and data analysts is expected to outpace supply by 2025. It’s estimated that increasing women’s participation in STEM careers could boost women’s cumulative earnings by almost $300 billion over the next 10 years. From solely a numbers perspective, it’s clear that it’s important to engage girls and women in STEM, but it’s also essential to diversify the voices in STEM. Great minds don’t think alike, and I firmly believe that democratizing access to education will help create a better world. Because of STEM mastery, scientists were able to create vaccines in record time during the COVID pandemic. We believe that the student using Numerade today will cure cancer tomorrow.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Democratize access to STEM — Not everyone has equal access to education, from private tutors to expensive SAT classes. Technology is a way to bridge this divide, as it can provide equal opportunity to students and adapt to various learning styles. To help level the playing field, Numerade offers free STEM boot camps every summer spanning 18 subjects for students to advance their learning over their summer.

Encourage a growth mindset within younger girls so that they feel confident enough and capable enough to get involved in STEM. Traditionally STEM careers have been male-dominated and this can be understandably intimidating for young women considering the field.

Lastly, promote women in the industry by providing lessons on the accomplishments of women in STEM. When people have a role model that looks like them, it helps the individual feel that much more confident when rising to meet challenges. It provides a real-world example of who they can be or what they can do.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Pay teachers more: This is where burnout begins. Educators go through countless hours of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to meet rigorous licensure and certification requirements. Then after all that work their dedication is rewarded with a less than desirable wage. By improving wages teachers will feel much more valued, that’s when we’ll stop seeing burnout amongst educators and start seeing an influx of new passionate teachers in schools.

Set high standards and expectations for students: I find it normally takes a little longer for the average individual to take ownership of their life’s direction, find the motivation, and act independently. By setting higher expectations on students we can help them develop a much greater sense of agency since they will feel responsible for their own education, instead of completing tasks simply because they’re doing what they’re told.

Set high standards, expectations, and accountability for teachers: Obviously, we should want our educators to meet higher expectations and standards because they are responsible for shaping the minds of upcoming generations. However, this goes back to the issue of educator wages. We can’t expect more of our educators without ensuring equivalent compensation. Once we solve that problem, we can begin setting higher standards for teachers and include incentives such as bonuses based on their students’ academic performance.

Empower teachers with AI: At Numerade we’ve seen how AI can be leveraged to drive positive outcomes for students and I know it can do the same for teachers. AI can create custom lesson plans to assist educators with personalized learning as well as handle administrative tasks grading, recording GPA and IEP data, and more. It’s something that can help simplify tasks and allow educators to spend more time helping students reach their academic goals.

STEM mastery focus starting in elementary: Currently, formal STEM instruction isn’t introduced to students until middle school when in reality, introducing STEM at even the preschool level has been shown to expedite a student’s academic growth and improve their ability to think and problem-solve.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech is something that really resonates with me because the speech itself is about how the person who deserves praise is the person who is actually doing the work. Regardless of failures or successes, going out and attempting something new and bold is what matters most. Many individuals in society praise the successes and are cynical otherwise. In reality, it’s the efforts and sacrifices of those who, as Teddy said, “dare greatly” that determine the bravest among us.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

As a big basketball fan, I’ve got to say Kawhi Leonard for sure!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Follow us on LinkedIn and other social channels! Numerade’s blog is also a great way to stay up to date on our latest developments as well as best-known tips and tricks for students and educators alike.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Nhon Ma of Numerade: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.