Concordia students are building an app that helps you choose the right university program using AI
Antoine Riachi and Dewakar Sundaram want to help future students pick the right program and career the first time, and they're using artificial intelligence (AI) to do it.
The two students from the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science are founding partners of Tesseract Technologies. It’s a startup company with a team of six Concordians that aims to use machine learning to help high-school and CEGEP students determine what post-secondary program would best suit them.
Riachi says the eventual product, called Gooroo.ai, will take a holistic approach to helping users identify the best field of study by evaluating things like their interests, values, aptitudes and ability to handle stress.
It will then compare the answers to results of undergraduate students who’ve “been there and done that, and who are successful and satisfied in their discipline.”
In order to build a product that works, the Tesseract team is distributing a questionnaire to current undergraduate students in the city to ask them similar questions about their personalities and skill sets, and program-specific questions about workload, stress and satisfaction levels.
The questionnaire, created in consultation with experts in psychology and psychometrics, is designed to help Tesseract show there are different types of personalities that excel in different majors and use that information to help students in the future.
“We first distributed our questionnaire to 400 students in different universities in Montreal, and we were able, using machine learning, to identify some clusters of personalities that are indeed unique to each discipline,” Riachi explains.
Even with this fairly small sample, they found that their approach using AI provided impressive predictive results.
Widening the data pool
The next step is replicating their results on a much larger scale. There are 72 academic programs and majors that are standard at most universities, ranging from engineering to law to medicine. Tesseract wants to have at least 100 students from each program take their questionnaire.
“We’re trying to use machine learning to form the different profiles that are unique to each learning program,” Riachi says.
“The majority of tests today use the average of the data points to make only one metric for what type of person excels in a given program. So you are always compared to the ‘average student.’ We’re trying to do the opposite and look at each and every individual and data point so you’re compared to all the different profiles currently in the program. We want to preserve the uniqueness of an individual.”
University students who would like to help can fill out their short survey. All entries are confidential and participation is completely voluntary. Participants will be entered in a draw to win one of eight $25 Amazon gift cards.
For Riachi, Tesseract’s mission has a personal connection. He first began as an applied physics student in Lebanon, then transferred to pre-med, and finally to industrial engineering.
He’s not alone — according to a December 2017 United States Department of Education report, 33 per cent of undergrad students change their major at least once within the first three years of study.
“It’s really a problem that touches our friends, our relatives, our community,” he says. “We just want to build a community with a purpose and make sure students are happy wherever they go.”
Sundaram agrees, and adds that for students who do transfer, it’s a decision that has a material impact. “When you move between two unrelated fields, that’s so much in lost credits,” he says. “Lost credits means losing money.”
As an international student who faced a financial challenge coming to Concordia, Sundaram knew he wanted to do something to help students but didn’t have anything specific in mind.
“When Antoine came up with this idea, I said, ‘Okay, this is something that’s worth my time and investment.’”
A business venture in an educational setting
Currently housed in Concordia’s District 3 Innovation Center, Tesseract is the product of an entrepreneurial work term — a program within the Institute for Co-operative Education that allows students with an idea for a business venture to spend a full co-op work term working on it. The Tesseract founders are the first students from the Gina Cody School to ever be granted an entrepreneurial work term.
Frederick Francis, the Co-op program coordinator for mechanical, industrial and aerospace engineering, says many students have come to him with business ideas for an entrepreneurial work term but then must come up with a business plan and answer questions about how their product and business would work.
“With Tesseract, we put them through the wringer, but every time they came back better prepared, and the project was further along,” Francis says.
Riachi, Sundaram and economics student Hadi El Zein, an original partner on Tesseract, pitched their idea before they began their first work term. They still had work to do then, Francis says, and afterward they came back with a more fully formed idea that Co-op could approve.
Riachi and Sundaram are now on their second entrepreneurial work term, and in the process they have netted support from a major player.
At the first ever Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada conference this summer, hosted by the Institute for Co-operative Education, Riachi and Sundaram were invited to present on the work they were doing on Tesseract. Their presentation caught the eye of an RBC executive, who invited them to present to the company’s management team.
“After the conference we had a video call and there were 16 executive board members from RBC present. It was a pretty intense meeting,” Riachi says with a laugh. “They asked tough questions, but we showed that we were really prepared and knew all the answers. We had a strong concept and we gained their attention.”
This summer, the five members of Tesseract will spend four months in Toronto working with RBC’s AI experts to further develop Tesseract’s Gooroo.ai. They will receive financial backing from the bank’s Future Launch program, a $500-million, 10-year commitment from the bank to help Canadian youth get work experience, grow their network and gain new skills.
For Riachi, it’s exciting to have gotten attention from outside Concordia.
“When you have big players that are willing to push you forward, it gives you reassurance and a drive to work harder toward achieving your goals.”
More homegrown support
Recently, both the Institute for Co-operative Education and Concordia’s Faculty of Arts and Science decided to provide additional financial support to Tesseract. Each presented the group with scholarships valued at $5,000 as they believe this venture is of great value to the educational community.
“I was pleased to support this project because it is both interdisciplinary and innovative,” says André Roy, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science.
“Tesseract is a great idea, led by great students who are thinking outside the box while enriching their student experience at Concordia. It is truly inspiring work.”
Claude Martel, director of Co-op, says it’s extremely exciting to see a group of Concordia students with diverse academic backgrounds put their heads together and come up with a solution that promises to answer a need at a critical time when many companies are looking for the right people.
“There’s a shortage of talent right now, because you have more people leaving the job market than coming in,” he says. “In specialized areas, such as aviation and information technology, it’s even more dramatic.”
Martel says Co-op is providing additional funding and logistical support to Tesseract because the team was able to prove they were ready to build their idea into a flourishing business.
“Of course we want to help them and see them grow this outside of the university. If they pull through and are successful, this will be a game-changer.”
Interested in doing your own entrepreneurial work term? Check out how to apply to Concordia’s Institute for Co-operative Education.