A team of Cornell students, part of the educational company called AI-Learners, are developing computer games to make math more accessible for students with disabilities and are now competing across the country to secure funding crucial to achieving their goal.
AI-Learners develops electronic games for students with physical, cognitive and behavioral disabilities. Their website includes games that teach various math skills — such as addition, subtraction and shapes.
For their founder, Adele Smolansky ’23, the mission of AI-Learners is a personal one. Her younger sister, Lara, was born with Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder. Smolansky wanted to create a tool to help her sister learn math. After speaking with Lara’s therapist, who suggested that a new electronic game would be helpful, Smolansky began learning to code.
Smolansky first attempted to create these games in high school but realized that she lacked the necessary coding experience. During the summer of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, she decided to collaborate with other Cornell students to revive the project.
Kylie Grinwald ’22 serves as the VP of Operations for AI-Learners. She became interested in joining the team after resonating with Smolansky’s goal.
“As a first-generation college student, any causes that relate to making learning accessible for a wider population of learners is very compelling to me,” she said.
To best tailor the website to the needs of families with students with disabilities, Smolansky and her team conducted trials with parents and educators while developing the product.
“We talked to them about what they liked and didn’t like about these [other educational game] platforms,” Smolansky said. “Then, through that, we created some designs.”
The website utilizes several different functions to specifically assist students with disabilities. When a student is playing a game, they are unable to begin until the instructions have been read to them. Additionally, the games are intentionally slowed down to cater to students who learn best at different paces.
The team designed the website to have special color contrast, as well as different reinforcement icons on the screen, implementing these features based on feedback received during user testing.
The website also provides support for screen readers, an assistive technology that translates written information into forms accessible to people with visual impairments.
The team also aims to make the learning experience rewarding and engaging for their audience. When a student gets an answer correct, a jingle plays and a happy picture congratulates the student on getting the answer. The games also have video breaks, during which the students may watch a YouTube video and listen to songs.
The team said that, in the future, they hope to expand their games to other subjects, such as English or science. However, their current goal is to focus on their first project before expanding.
“We really just want to make sure that we’re focused first on reaching our short-term goal and making that one before expanding the audience,” Smolansky said.
After creating their initial product, the team then applied to Cornell’s eLab — a startup accelerator for students — where they took entrepreneurship classes, worked with mentors to further develop and research their project and prepared it for launch. After completing the program and incorporating AI-Learners as a legal entity, the team received $5,000 from eLab, marking their first round of funding.
The company, originally run by about six members, has now grown to a team of 20. They continue to use the eLab’s eHub space to work on AI-Learners, where they work in four teams: software development, game development, design and business. Each team has a project manager, but, despite this structure, Smolansky stressed the company’s non-hierarchical culture.
“Even though we do have different position titles for people, we found that [an inclusive team] just fosters collaboration a lot more,” she said. “It’s honestly great to have so many people, everyone contributing.… I can point to what every single person on the team has done.”
Grinwald echoed this sentiment, talking positively about the different opportunities and experiences being a part of the AI-Learners team has afforded her.
“I have grown tremendously on both personal and professional levels, and expanded my areas of expertise from primarily human resources to a variety of business functions including marketing, finance, and operations,” she said.
The team’s next step is to secure funding to hire full-time developers as they continue to build their product and cover various expenses. From the end of February to the beginning of March this year, AI-Learners was selected as a semi-finalist for both the TCU Values and Ventures Competition and the Draper Business Plan Competition. Several members of the AI-Learners team will be traveling to Texas over spring break to pitch their company in an attempt to to win over $40,000 and $100,000 in funding.
Beyond creating educational games, the team at AI-Learners hopes to use their products to conduct research on the acquisition of math skills among students with disabilities, information that can help to inform educators’ curriculum development.
“If you talk to educators or special education teachers that work with kids with disabilities, they’ll say that all of their logic for how to teach kids is based on just anecdotal experience,” Smolansky said.
AI-Learners plans to release a beta version of their website this summer, with a subscription version to launch next year.