By Andra Lim, originally published in The Daily Bruin
July 12, 2010 at 1:30 a.m.
When Rajesh Jha took chemistry as an eighth-grader in India, he never used a beaker or a Bunsen burner.
The only equipment his class had was a blackboard.
“I got really upset about the lack of experimental facilities,” Jha said. “So I got the class together and wrote a letter to the principal, about how we were supposed to answer a question about a magnesium ribbon if we didn’t know what a magnesium ribbon looked like. It wasn’t something that I got brownie points for, but I didn’t get into a lot of trouble.”
Years later, Jha is still trying to bring better technology into the classroom. Now a graduate student at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, he recently co-founded SimInsights, a company that produces simulation software for engineering and science courses.
“We hope to motivate more people to pursue (math and science),” Jha said, adding that conceptual understanding is often difficult. “It’s hard when you rely on one professor lecturing 50 or 100 kids. Is there a technology that can do it better? In a way, the company is trying to answer that question.”
The company’s first product, SimNewton, is designed for physics classes in middle school, high school and introductory college courses. Using SimNewton, students can simulate models, such as two balls colliding. These simulations teach students about terms such as force and acceleration.
“If you went to GM or Toyota, you would see engineers building models of machines on computers all day,” Jha said. “We’re trying to create something similar, except the purpose is not to design, but to understand the behavior of the system and gain insight.”
The collaborative aspect of SimNewton distinguishes the program from other simulation software, Jha said. Similar to YouTube, the technology allows students to view and comment on each other’s models. SimNewton is also browser-based instead of desktop-based, so users do not have to install any software and can simply log on to the Internet.
SimNewton was pilot-tested during the spring in physics classes at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, and students reported that they loved the program’s flexibility and variety, said Michael Amarillas, a teacher.
“SimNewton helped take their thinking to the next analytical level,” Amarillas said, adding that he plans to continue using the software this fall. “They built intuitions (about physics) pretty well from the world around them and hands-on experiments. SimNewton helped them with the detail, the nitty gritty, and helped them think like physicists.”
Jha and cofounder Kedar Kale built the software with two undergraduate interns from UCLA. Different members of the team were in different places – from Irvine to Bangladesh – so their communication was entirely digital, through software such as Skype and Google Docs.
Now the company is developing SimStructures, which UCLA may pilot in an engineering course this year. The program allows students to solve complicated equations involving structures like bridges, which cannot be done by hand.
Additional pilot programs of SimInsights products are being planned with colleges across the globe and with school districts such as Los Angeles Unified.
“The industry (Jha is) targeting is simulation-based learning, which is large and growing very quickly,” said Subramaniam Ramanarayanan, an Anderson professor who taught Jha in a business strategy class. “More and more teachers are finding simulation-based learning is a way in which their students can learn very effectively.”
Jha’s background in engineering only strengthens the product, Ramanarayanan said.
Growing up in India with an accountant father and a housewife mother, the only technological devices Jha saw were radios, televisions and calculators. But when he was accepted to the Indian Institute of Technology for undergraduate studies, he saw a computer for the first time in 1994.
“I hadn’t seen anything in my whole life that excited me so much,” he said. “To see something that ran so fast, executed instructions so fast, did all these mathematical calculations so fast – it seemed to me there were enormous possibilities for what could be done.”
A few years later, Jha moved to the U.S. to enroll in a master’s program in mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. Eventually, he decided to get a business degree as well and applied to UCLA.
Jha founded SimInsights last summer after quitting his job at the software company Altair, where he had been working since he graduated from Ohio State in 2000. While working at Altair, he first conceived the idea behind SimInsights.
Jha wanted to integrate the software used at Altair into a class at Cornell University, but the technology was too complex. Now, Jha has created his own technology and built a small company with huge aspirations.
“I think our dream is a really big one because (our products) can be used globally,” Jha said. “We believe that if we play the game long enough, we will be able to realize our dream. This is what we would like to do more than any career we can think of.”