For Betty Hsu an idea about how to strengthening one’s vocabulary became a rewarding lesson. While at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, she created ProfessorWord, an online application that helps to boost vocabulary development.
In May, just days before receiving her M.B.A. from Penn, Hsu’s idea paid off in a big way with a $20,000 award, when she took home the Educational Services of America Prize for Innovation in the Fields of Special Education and At-Risk Students.
Penn’s Graduate School of Education and the Milken Family Foundation created the Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition to foster educational innovation, connecting investors with start-ups ready to bring new ideas to the marketplace.
With the prize money, Hsu is now working to further develop the app with co-founder Ivan Chang.
Hsu, a former English teacher and educational consultant, was inspired to create the app based on her experiences helping her immigrant parents learn English and on preparing high school students for the Standard Aptitude Test.
Over time, Hsu noticed that many of her students weren’t reading enough, making it hard for them to develop the vocabulary they need to do well on examinations like the SATs and ACTs, in college and beyond.
“This is a big problem, because research shows vocabulary is one of the single most reliable predictors of a student’s future academic and career success,” Hsu says.
Hsu says that’s where ProfessorWord will step in to help, by generating personalized reading programs for users based on their interests, reading level and vocabulary needs. The application works on any Website to highlight vocabulary words, offer one-click definitions and save key words for future study.
While most existing vocabulary-building products look to memorization, ultimately, they fail to promote long-term retention, Hsu says. But ProfessorWord is focused on contextual learning and spaced repetition in order to be both effective and engaging.
“Students would prefer to learn vocabulary by reading a review of Drake’s new album in The Atlantic that uses 25 vocabulary words, rather than by reviewing flashcards,” Hsu says, “and appealing to the students is the key.”
Hsu and Chang are now ready to take ProfessorWord into beta testing and are inviting people to try their free beta tool. Additionally, they hope to conduct ProfessorWord pilot studies in local high schools and launch a vocabulary reading program for SAT and ACT test takers this fall.