Wash. U. graduate student starts Virtual Nerd tutoring service online

| Staff Reporter
J. DeWeese | St. Louis

Virtual Nerd was founded by Josh Salcman (left) and Leo Shmuylovich (right) in March 2008 to help students who struggle in math and science by offering video tutorials online in those subjects.

As a solution to the high number of high school students who struggle with math and science, Wash. U. graduate student Leo Shmuylovich and Princeton University graduate Josh Salcman created a Web site called Virtual Nerd (virtualnerd.com) that provides interactive online video tutorials instructing students in math and science.

Leo Shmuylovich graduated from Cornell University as a Chemical Engineer and is currently in the MD/PhD program at the Washington University School of Medicine. He worked for The Princeton Review as an MCAT and SAT I lecturer. After graduating from Princeton University, Josh Salcman pursued graphic design at New York’s School of Visual Arts and has worked with numerous companies such as the New York office of Mainspring, Inc. as a web and graphic designer.

Since its launch on March 20, 2008, the Web site has accumulated a total of 330 Algebra I tutorials that add up to 13.5 hours of viewing time with more than 12,000 step-by-step graphics, according to a fact sheet provided by Josh Salcman.

Each video tutorial shows a real teacher solving a problem with a list of the steps on the side of the screen. Students can click a step and branch off to view another video that explains a more basic question that may have been necessary to understand the problem. The same video can then be further directed to videos that explain even more basic definitions and formulas. The videos cascade together so the student can jump to any step of any video at any time.

After tutoring in math and science for 10 years, Shmuylovich noticed that there were lots of students who could benefit from help but couldn’t get it.

“I was looking for a way to help a larger number of students. My original concept wasn’t even a business idea. I thought I’d videotape myself solving physics problems and then post the videos to YouTube so people could learn from them,” Shmuylovich wrote in an email.

Shmuylovich and Salcman had worked on the project for six months when they learned about the Olin Cup competition sponsored by the Skandalaris Center in the Olin Business School. Through the competition, they successfully drafted a detailed business plan and pitched it in front of entrepreneurial experts from around St. Louis. The team won the Olin Cup’s $75,000 grand prize in 2009.

Currently, Virtual Nerd only provides Algebra I instruction, though it has plans to introduce all levels of high school math from Pre-Algebra to Calculus, as well as Physics and Chemistry by August 2011.

The website currently allows users to register for free to access all of its Algebra I tutorials. However, according to Salcman, a $50 per month Premium Plan will launch on May 1st, 2010, though there will “always be a Basic Plan as well, with many tutorials available for free, including most or all of the core concepts in a given subject.”

Virtual Nerd has also marketed its video tutorials to schools in the St. Louis area and received positive feedback.

“We’ve met with teachers and administrators at…Chaminade and Rosati-Kain, both of which were pilot schools for us, as well as St. Mary’s, Ladue, Duchesne, Parkway, Kennedy, and others,” Shmuylovich wrote. “Some people get it immediately; others have to see a demo first…Our hope is that teachers will recommend Virtual Nerd to students and their parents.”

With success in St. Louis, Virtual Nerd has begun expanding nationally and working on incorporating other forms of delivery.

“We’ve had inquiries from students, parents and educators from as far away as Hawaii,” Salcman wrote. “We’re also working on one strategic partnership to white-label our instructional platform and another to bring Virtual Nerd to web-connected TVs.

  • http://twitter.com/VirtualNerd Virtual Nerd

    Very well-written article. Thanks for the coverage! One point of clarification: We founded the company in March of 2008, but the website, in its current form, with the 330+ tutorials mentioned in the article, actually launched in November of 2009; not March of 2008 as stated in the article.