Today’s guest is Ben Williams, founder and CEO of Firecracker. Firecracker is, according to its website, “an adaptive learning platform that uses amazing content coupled with spaced repetition to help medical students crush their exams.”
Ben graduated from Harvard College in 2005 with a BA in Biology and Health Policy. From 2006-09 he co-founded and managed Firefly Health, a health-focused social network. And in 2009 he co-founded Firecracker, where he is currently the CEO. Welcome!
What is Firecracker? [1:25]
The easiest way to think about it that for students, it’s an interactive/adaptive question bank. We have a wide variety of questions with a range of difficulty, and we have an intelligent algorithm that figures out what works best for students like you (a kind of smart tutor bot). There’s also content to help you remediate.
For schools, we customize recommendations around the testing schedule and curriculum. So we work with the school to support the curriculum.
We built the platform to be content-agnostic, so we’re now partnering with other programs in the health space, such as Stanford’s anesthesiology program.
If I’m a premed student, what can Firecracker do for me? [6:30]
It’s designed to kill two birds with one stone: to help you master material for classes and learn material you need to prepare for standardized tests.
Say you’re taking organic chem. You can go to the system and identify concepts that are important, and you can prioritize them by how important they are to you (the urgency at that point in the semester). The system will start asking you easy questions, and then more difficult questions over time. The most difficult questions approach board-exam level difficulty (three order questions), so they can get pretty difficult.
Is the system mainly for self-prep and/or a supplement to an MCAT course? [10:55]
We believe it’s for any stage of the process. Most people can use us alongside courses, just like having a tutor.
We just launched a dedicated “test prep” mode, for people who are leading up to a standardized test. That focuses on test style questions and more intensive test prep.
Say a second-year college student signs up and wants help with orgo, and they plan to take the MCAT next year. How would it work? [13:00]
Our algorithm/tutor will recommend the right questions at the right time, so we recommend they follow the recommendations, which are based in memory science – repeatedly doing questions spaced out over time.
The way people use it effectively is consistently, and in short bursts throughout the day. (This is different from the way a lot of people study by cramming!)
We focused a lot on our mobile apps – people use them to study five minutes here and there.
In “test mode” we recommend a progress test every week, to build test taking stamina. It’s important, because many of these tests are very long. This practice and exposure can help you reduce test taking anxiety. Tackling your fear of doing questions is very effective, neurobiologically.
With med schools and residency programs, you have integrations with the schools? [19:40]
Yes, that’s where we have most integration with the curriculum.
Primarily, the user experience. Also, our algorithm has more experience: more students, more answered questions, so we have more data to help us improve the experience further. Students answer 10 million questions a month, and we use the data to improve the algorithm, so the results are constantly improving.
In addition, our partner schools are reaffirming that it works, through their own studies.
Do you have clients who started in college (before the MCAT) and used the service all the way to residency? [23:00]
Yes – I remember a Harvard med school student who talked about that experience, using it as a premed all the way through med school. That’s the goal for us: a helpful product throughout the training process, and for physicians as well.
How much does it cost? [23:40]
It’s currently free for premeds, and around $200 a year for medical students. We frequently offer discounts, usually via invitation from other users (as well as group discounts).
How did you come to start Firecracker? [25:00]
When I was a premed at Harvard, I got taken under the wing of a group of premeds who really knew how to study. We basically cobbled together a system in analog. On day one of each semester, we’d print out all the exams and problem sets, and then do all the questions for pretesting (we would fail terribly). As we went through the lectures, we’d turn key concepts into flashcards, create review schedules, memorize key concepts, and challenge ourselves with problem sets and exams. It worked, but it was a lot of overhead!
When it came to the MCAT, the question was: what was relevant from our coursework?
The three initial founders of Firecracker were Harvard residents, and when they approached me, I jumped right away – I saw the need.
Why did you choose the name “Firecracker”? [30:10]
It was originally called “Gunner Training.” I didn’t think that scaled very well to other markets, and some people took offense, since “gunner” doesn’t have a great connotation in a team-based environment. I wanted something celebratory of learning and energy. My wife suggested “firecracker.”
I always found learning really cool – I wanted to capture that celebratory moment, like setting off fireworks.
You provide service for premed, med students, and residency, and you’re planning to expand to postbac programs, and eventually PA and other programs. Do you see Firecracker expanding outside healthcare to other professional licensing preparation, such as the bar exam? [35:40]
Yes, eventually. Right now, we’re focused on the healthcare vertical, but we hypothesize that the platform would fit other fields (law, finance, vocational learning).
Ultimately, the biggest potential may be using AI to teach students who aren’t as motivated, such as in the K-12 space. Using technology like this, we could develop individualized learning that aligns with the time-based curriculum of the school.
For me that goes back to a personal story. I was a terrible student, and my seventh grade teacher helped me see the connection between ATP and my interest in skateboarding and soccer. I studied, I did well on the test, and I never looked at myself the same way again. I learned to make connections between my interests/motivation and what I was studying.
Any last advice for premeds preparing for the MCAT? [43:35]
I’d recommend people run into questions, not away from them. Don’t think it’s too early: pretesting primes your brain, it’s not too early.
Print out the MCAT syllabus, and look at the classes you’re taking. Make note of what you’re learning and what you need to study.
Repeatedly do questions, spaced out over time, of a wide range of difficulty.
If you’re putting yourself in a career path that requires high performance – life changing performance – on standardized tests, you need to admit that. Test questions need to be your friend.
And the test questions these days are good! They’re not rote memorization – they’re thoughtful questions.
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