Living in Colombia until recent years, Notre Dame alumnus Dr. Sebastián Murgueitio Ramírez knows first hand the barriers that cause college students to give up. Before coming to the University of Notre Dame to earn his PhD, Ramírez taught college level physics classes in his native country, where some students dropped out due to language barriers that made complex problems too difficult to understand. Ramírez never forgot those students—and coupled with his own experience as an undergraduate in Colombia—he and another Notre Dame alumna have created a startup to help students surmount the language barriers and successfully study science.
Boosted by a recent $20,000 investment from Elevate Ventures’ Community Ideation Fund, South Bend-based STUDIA.app has created a bilingual website that helps high school and college students study complex scientific topics in English and Spanish. Founded just one year ago, Ramírez says 70 teachers currently subscribe to its website.
Ramírez studied physics at a college in Colombia and taught physics classes to students there after earning his bachelor’s degree in the subject. He recalls frustrations as a student trying to find thorough explanations, and the problem became even more evident as a teacher.
“I had students who came from poorer regions of the country; those are the ones who quit the class more quickly than others,” says Ramírez, STUDIA.app chief executive officer. “As I was teaching them, it was very sad to see that just because they came from a region that didn’t have strong resources, they couldn’t perform at the college level in the physics classes.”
STUDIA.app is an online tool to help students understand complex scientific concepts by presenting problems and solutions in Spanish and English. Ramírez says it addresses a gap that exists in Colombia and the U.S.; while textbooks or websites provide problems and answers, it’s difficult to find resources that give detailed, step-by-step explanations of how to arrive at the answer.
“Even the [resources] in English focus more on the theory side of things, like how to explain a concept or topic. There’s no website dedicated to walking the student through all the steps of a problem,” says Ramírez. “There were some things in English, but they were expensive—obviously because they’re for the American population; it’s not the same to pay $5 in the U.S. as it is to pay $5 in Colombia.”
STUDIA.app also aims to eliminate the language barrier by providing detailed explanations in both Spanish and English. Ramírez says this fills a gap also in the U.S., where Hispanic students are tackling difficult scientific concepts while simultaneously trying to learn English.
“I thought, ‘How cool would it be for a Spanish-speaking student to see the exact same content they’re learning in their class in both languages to make sure they really understand what they’re learning?’” says Ramírez.
Ramírez co-founded STUDIA.app with another Notre Dame alumni, Dr. Stacy Sivinski, and Leonardo Uribe Castaño, a PhD candidate in physics at the University of Toronto. While the website currently focuses on bilingual physics explanations, the startup plans to add calculus soon and aims to expand into many other subjects.
In addition to the recent $20,000 investment, the startup earned a spot in the Race to Revenue summer accelerator at Notre Dame’s IDEA Center. STUDIA.app also won the accelerator’s award for the best College of Science venture at the 2020 McCloskey Business Competition. The startup says it’s having conversations with potential investors and seeking those that are especially interested in supporting minority-led startups.
STUDIA.app currently uses a subscription model for students and teachers, but is also exploring a license-based model, in which schools would pay a license fee for all of its students to use the website. Several pilot programs are underway now, including two schools in Colombia, and the startup is working to partner with schools in the South Bend area.
“I wish I was a student now,” laughs Ramírez, “and I could use my own website to understand any problem in physics to the smallest detail. It can be really frustrating as a student when you can’t find a detailed, complete explanation. We have something that is working now and on the web that addresses this precise issue, and we’re really excited about it.”
Ramirez says expanding internet access in Colombia will allow more students to access STUDIA.app.
Ramirez says STUDIA.app also makes its problems more familiar to the Colombian culture.