With time to spare during COVID-19, students offer free tutoring

The students behind Ingenify, a free online tutoring website, (clockwise from left) co-founders Bedansh Pandey, 16, and Paul Philip, 17, team member Ali Addis, 16, co-founder Benson Zhang, 17, and team members Grant Peng, 14, and Grace Peng, 16, talk at a neighborhood park where they often meet in Suwanee on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. The fourth co-founder, Jatong Su, 17, is not pictured. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
The students behind Ingenify, a free online tutoring website, (clockwise from left) co-founders Bedansh Pandey, 16, and Paul Philip, 17, team member Ali Addis, 16, co-founder Benson Zhang, 17, and team members Grant Peng, 14, and Grace Peng, 16, talk at a neighborhood park where they often meet in Suwanee on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. The fourth co-founder, Jatong Su, 17, is not pictured. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Soon after starting school last fall, high school junior Anna Shakhnovsky realized she was in over her head in a computer science course.

She needed help, fast, and when her mom found a new free online tutoring service, Anna, 16, sifted through the options, picking a couple of tutors in metro Atlanta. They got Anna back on track through sessions on Zoom, and it became a social outlet.

“We would talk about other things; it was nice,” said Anna, who lives in Johns Creek. “I was surprised they had so much time to help me.” The website looked so slick that Anna didn’t realize until later that kids from her old middle school had created it. “It didn’t look like it was made by a bunch of high schoolers. It looked very official.”

Ingenify.org sprang from the minds of four students at Northview High School in Johns Creek. They started developing it in March, after COVID-19 closed their school. A couple of them needed volunteer hours for school clubs, and tutoring would have been a way to get them if not for the pandemic. Another was an avid programmer.

Three of the four co-founders of Ingenify, a free online tutoring website, (from left) Bedansh Pandey, 16, Paul Philip, 17, and Benson Zhang, 17, are shown in Suwanee on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at a neighborhood park where they often meet with their programmer and co-founder, Jatong Su, 17, (not pictured). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Three of the four co-founders of Ingenify, a free online tutoring website, (from left) Bedansh Pandey, 16, Paul Philip, 17, and Benson Zhang, 17, are shown in Suwanee on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at a neighborhood park where they often meet with their programmer and co-founder, Jatong Su, 17, (not pictured). (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Bedansh Pandey, 16, the team spokesman, said the service has been catching on, though he isn’t sure it will endure. “When the pandemic is over and people have been vaccinated, they won’t want to sit in front of their computer for hours,” he said.

Ingenify has been connecting kids across metro Atlanta, and the country, with about 400 tutoring sessions logged so far, he said. They are led by high school volunteers who cover a variety of subjects in the K-12 curriculum, from math and science to language and literature. They’ll also help with college prep tests, the SAT and ACT.

Emery Thul, 17, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is among the tutors.

He tutored at his school before the pandemic, and signed up with Ingenify because the National Honor Society requires students to accrue volunteer hours. He’s gone beyond the necessary time with his three students.

The same goes for one of Anna’s tutors, a senior at North Gwinnett High School who’s logged a couple of dozen hours with more than 10 kids, even though he just needed five hours for Beta Club, another organization that promotes volunteering

“I just like meeting people on Ingenify,” said the student, Sidney Wright, 17, who lives in Suwanee. “I like to see what people understand. I can’t put it into words. It just makes me feel good.”

Sarah Park, a fellow senior there, said she learned about Ingenify through Beta Club. She’s logged about 20 hours. Her longest session was three hours, with a girl in Arizona.

The pandemic has altered the rhythms of high school life, with many extracurricular activities on hold. Sarah, 17, said she has time to spare. “There’s not a lot of activities to do right now.”

The founders of Ingenify want it to grow. Bedansh, the co-founder, said last month that he encountered bureaucracy when calling around to schools, trying to get them to promote the service. It has grown on its own, though, with about a third more sessions since then, he said Tuesday.

Fulton County Schools is aware of Ingenify now, said Chief Academic Officer Cliff Jones. School district officials have been talking with the students about how their service fits with the district’s pandemic recovery plan, which calls for sustained, small group learning sessions.

Ingenify requires that tutors have a 3.7 grade-point average, but Jones said an ability to teach is also important, and the teens should find a way to screen volunteers for that.

“Teaching and tutoring is as much art as it is science,” he said. “These young people know the content, but this is their first venture in trying to teach some of that content.”

Bedansh acknowledged that school officials asked about quality control when his team showed them the platform. “They did say that would probably be one of the bigger concerns,” he said.

He and his co-founders now interview would-be tutors. They asked one to explain math matrices and, said Bedansh, “The way the person was explaining it was just incredibly confusing.” That student was among several rejected, he said. The site has also added a rating system.

The teens have applied for nonprofit status because they hope to raise money: They calculate they’re several hundred dollars out of pocket so far. They’d like to adapt their service for a post-pandemic world, perhaps connecting students who live near each other, said Bedansh, a junior.

Some noted downsides to online tutoring, like one tutor whose middle school student would get distracted after half an hour staring at his screen, or another tutor who sometimes got frustrated trying to explain things.

Some concepts might be easier to convey while huddled over a piece of paper, said Sidney, the North Gwinnett High senior.

But a touchscreen with an electronic pen during a video session worked well enough, said Sidney, who will soon choose between offers from MIT and Georgia Tech and may have less time for tutoring next fall. “I think online is so convenient that it could last.”

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