Friday, January 1, 2010

The Story of Pavaki.Net was born as a set of humble scripts I wrote to enter, store, format, and track math problems for students attending MATHCOUNTS coaching sessions at Peterson Middle school where I volunteer as a coach. For each session, I would decide a main topic and type-in problems of varying difficulty in LaTeX, a type setting system developed by Donald Knuth and used widely by mathematicians and scientists. In the beginning, I stored the problem text in a database and used a script to generate nice PDFs. This may seem too elaborate for a simple task but I had my reasons -- I wanted to assign problem sets based on student ability and also to change order of problems within a set to frustrate students who happily copied the answer from the next guy (it was never a gal!). It was my observation that bright students lost interest when the problems were too easy and not so bright ones gave up rather quickly when the problems were out of their reach. Also, a large percentage of the class would take the path of least activity and would simply copy the answer from next guy simply because they could.

Although I wrote the programs capable of generating such problem sets with problems in random order, putting this in practice turned out to be much harder. It was just too much of a hassle to print 30 different practice sheets for each coaching session and discuss the solutions in the class without having a common sheet to refer to. In hindsight, it is quite obvious that the system could have never worked in a classroom setting.

At this point I started thinking of other uses of my programs, who had grown in number in complexity over time. What if I could assign the problems to students over the Internet and they could access and attempt the problems directly on their computers! They would be able to work on problems and review suggested solutions at a time and place nof their choosing and I will have the flexibility to recommend problems based on their performance, something which the computer can help me do. Once in place, such a system could be used by any parent or coach, I reasoned. And why limit it to only students and maths, even technical job seekers preparing for interviews, or those preparing for competitive exams such as SAT could use such a system to test their own knowledge in a particular area of expertise.

Of course, all this needed a much more sophisticated web application than the loose collection of script I had. Also, the problems and the solutions that I have created are probably not going to be adequate for everyone. So there had to be a way for people to create their own problems, suggested solutions and ability to use them in a way I could with my students. It would also be nice for people to share their problems, with all users or just their own friends.

So began my multi-month hobby project to create, a hosted web application that allows a user to enter, organize, share, assign and solve problems. I populated it with problem sets created for the MATHCOUNTS class. Over time, I also added other kinds of problems -- word analogy problems for my younger daughter who sometimes gets stuck on specific words and technical problems in areas of my interest to amuse my own colleagues and friends and also to brush up my own knowledge.

The result, is long way from being complete but, at least in my humble opinion, ready for use by daring individuals.

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