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Online student startup promotes collaborative studying

BrainChain allows students to create study groups, hopes to spread to other universities

A new online startup called BrainChain, created by Chuck Isgar ’20.5, is redefining the ability of students to study together.

The platform, launched on the first day of classes this spring, allows users to quickly set up times to meet and study across all types of classes, with users creating study sessions or joining already-formed groups. The sessions are listed by course name on BrainChain’s website and include the time, date and location of the meeting, as well as the specific material that will be covered.

When creating an account, students list their classes and can elect to receive email updates for new sessions related to their courses.

While Isgar is “not sharing specific user numbers,” he has seen the most interest from students in Economics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Physics and Neurology classes, he wrote in an email to The Herald.

Isgar first noticed the need for a streamlined way to promote group collaboration when he transferred to the University last spring. As a new student, he struggled to find partners or groups to study with — an experience he believes is common at the University. “It can be 8:30 on a Thursday night … and within 15 minutes you could have a group of six, two, four. To me that’s really exciting,” he said.

Even though student-to-student interaction is what drives the platform, BrainChain may also be used by teaching assistants and faculty as a way to supplement teaching. Jullian Vallyeason ’20 is a TA for ENGN 40, an introductory engineering course. The class covers a wide variety of material, and due to its comprehensive nature, at times leaves students overwhelmed, Vallyeason said.

Vallyeason plans to use the BrainChain platform to create study and review sessions once labs begin in about two weeks. He added that he often receives a number of questions and emails during both his TA hours and during the week, and so holding a review session created by BrainChain to answer all of the questions at once could prove very efficient.

BrainChain has garnered attention and recognition from a number of professors in the STEM fields. In some of his classes, Professor of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine finishes the semester with group projects and papers, encouraging students to come together. He has made comments and announcements about BrainChain on Canvas for his courses.

Hazeltine said he appreciates the value of collaboration that BrainChain promotes, adding that he did not recognize the importance of group work until graduate school.

“I all of a sudden found out that getting together with four or five people and really discussing it … helped in really understanding the subtleties of the material,” he added.

Beyond the academic sphere, Hazeltine feels that BrainChain, with a few tweaks, could find success in business or workplace settings. “It’s important to realize that groups are useful to, first, help people get through the course but also to develop skills to work effectively within a group. The people who succeed in a company are people who can work in a group and across disciplines,” he added.

Although the project has only recently started, both Isgar and David Targan ’79, associate dean of the College for science education, see it eventually spreading and being used by a number of other universities.

Targan said he is focused on better ways to teach and advise students in the sciences, and believes that BrainChain study groups would be more effective with the presence of a faculty member, TA or someone with more subject knowledge to supplement the sessions. “In general, my belief is that anything bottom-up like that … where students themselves are generating it, that’s going to be more successful than anything (the administration) creates,” he added.

Targan hopes to see BrainChain grow and improve at the University before presenting it and pushing it out to other universities through the Association for American Universities, a group of 62 universities who collaborate on the advancement of research and education.

He added that it is possible to see BrainChain find real success at institutions that have many commuter students, such as the University of Minnesota — where Targan received his PhD — or even, more locally, Rhode Island Community College.

“Any mechanism that really facilitates getting students together to study — this is what we want to be promoting,” Targan said.

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