Back to her roots: Aashna Saraf PO ’21 creates award-winning learning app for Indian children

An iPad open to the Google Play Store listing of the Root app.
Aashna Saraf PO ’21 developed the app Root, winner of the Catalyst Prize in the Tools Competition, to help children improve their math skills. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Aashna Saraf PO ’21 knew her psychology thesis needed to make a real difference in children’s education. Motivated by her interest in developmental psychology, the pandemic and setbacks in Indian children’s acquisition of math concepts, Saraf decided to create an app to help children improve their math skills. 

The result, after months of research and app development, was Root, the winner of a Catalyst Prize in the Tools Competition.

Equipped with 14 games that target different foundational math concepts, Root helps young children develop their numeracy skills. As children continue playing, the app records how well children know the concepts, allowing Saraf to eventually provide parents with personal assessments to help them better support each child’s learning. 

“[With Root] you get this really rich data set,” Saraf said. “You can collect a lot more data than you can in a physical setting. An app measures the reaction time, number of hints and specific gestures or symbols or signs that the child makes. … It gives you a better idea, developmentally, of how children progress as they learn math and when certain skills become intuitive.”

Root is specifically geared toward Indian children. Both Saraf and co-founder Neil Vakharia, a computer science and mathematics major at Northwestern University, are from Mumbai, India, and they’ve made it their mission to hire Indian game developers. The games are bilingual, presenting instructions in Hindi and English, and their graphics and content all depict elements of Indian culture.

“All the contexts are Indian,” Saraf said. “For example, we have a game set in the kitchen, and even the dishes that are prepared are very Indian in nature.”

Saraf started working on Root last year, when she decided to focus her thesis on creating a math learning intervention program. Talking to Indian preschool teachers, she was alarmed when she learned that Indian school curriculums were lacking in their numeracy training, with preschool teachers devoting about five minutes to teaching math for every 40 minutes they taught English, according to Saraf’s research.

“Numeracy is not developmental — it’s very much a man-made concept.” —Aashna Saraf PO ’21

“Numeracy is not developmental — it’s very much a man-made concept,” Saraf said. “Addition, subtraction, the bigger kind of constructs like big versus small … those are physically available, and you can easily spot them, but anything beyond that is very much taught and formalized. So it’s very difficult to pick that up on your own.” 

To choose the numeracy constructs that each game would address, Saraf spent the fall of 2020 reviewing more than 35 research papers with her thesis adviser, Pomona College psychological science professor Patricia Smiley. They compiled the information into a comprehensive literature review with 14 different skills that children should master in order to succeed in math in the future. 

At the same time, Saraf and Vakharia started brainstorming and developing prototypes for their games. However, they quickly realized that coding games was much more complicated and time-consuming than they thought — at one point, Saraf and Vakharia spent more than two months creating one. Additionally, the games were not attractive enough to keep children’s interest, which Saraf realized when she tested the games on her young nephew. 

“I would have one [game] built, and I would [tell him], ‘Here, this is for you to play,’” Saraf said. And he’d just be like, ‘No, I don’t want to play on the phone.’ Have you ever heard a 5-year-old tell you that he does not want to play on the phone? I managed to get a kid to say no. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this is not gonna work.’”

Saraf realized she needed to hire game developers to code and design her app’s games, but she didn’t have funding to pay them. Her mentor Ajoy Vase PO ’07 suggested that she participate in the Futures Forum on Learning Tools Competition, which awarded proposals that had innovative ways to mitigate the educational impact of COVID-19.

When submitting her application, Saraf didn’t realize that the competition wasn’t just open to college students. In fact, her project was competing with those of established researchers and professors. 

“[When] I progressed through the first phase, I realized this [was] not a student competition,” Saraf said. “Literally, researchers who I’ve quoted in my research were competing in the same category as me. This was mind-numbing.”

Despite being relatively new to the game, Saraf and Vakharia’s app won a Catalyst Award in March, worth up to $25,000 in funding — they were the only winning undergraduate team to do so. With that money, Saraf hired game developers, who helped her code the games she envisioned. 

After the games were developed, Saraf spent spring break piloting the app at a Mumbai preschool she’d interned at during her first summer of college. She collected data from parents and the school, then had 120 children between the ages of three and six take a diagnostic test and then play a 20-minute game each day for 20 days.

Because Saraf was in the United States at the time, there was a 12-hour difference between her and the parents and students in India, which proved challenging. 

“I had to stay up the entire [first] night just doing customer support on WhatsApp because we had a bunch of tech problems,” she said. “I think I was awake for 27 hours that day, just doing customer support and helping parents get onto the app.”

Now that the pilot program finished, Saraf is working on fixing the app’s bugs — like how it crashes when used on low-budget phones — as well as analyzing the data collected to provide parents with personalized assessments.

Although the process has been long and challenging and Saraf is still working on improving the app, she said the reactions from the children she’s trying to help make it all worth it.

“When I actually delivered the games to the kids, this one parent texted me, saying, ‘Aashna, my kid has tried to play a game five times today. You know, he is just obsessed with his phone. And he hates math in school; he refuses to do any kind of numeral identification. … But this app has kind of turned it around for him, and he’s just enjoying it so much,’” she said. “And the minute he sent me that text, I was like, ‘This is why I’m doing it.’” 

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