A Chicago native and perpetual graduate student—he holds degrees in law and business, among others—Kelley got the inspiration for Arete while volunteering to help the rowing team train at his old high school. He watched as rowers took a routine but grueling endurance test, and felt that the atmosphere was “electric.” Though their scores didn’t mean anything in the long run, the rowers were obsessed with the task at hand, pushing to achieve their personal best.

Kelley began to wonder how one might replicate that fighting spirit in the classroom. He soon imagined a computer application that would use students’ day-to-day results to match them up with comparably skilled contestants in head-to-head academic competition—in everything from classroom pickup games to bleacher-filling, live-broadcast amphitheater tournaments.

In September 2012, Kelley called Steve Dunbar, director of the American Mathematics Competitions, or AMC, an elite program sponsored by the nonprofit Mathematical Association of America, with the idea of a competition based on AMC problems. The competition, founded in 1950, enrolls about 400,000 students, but it still uses pencil and paper and can take weeks to score. Dunbar had actually been searching for a way to bring AMC into the 21st century, and as soon as Kelley described his vision, Dunbar knew that this was what he’d been looking for. In two months, Kelley had a prototype. In five months, he and Dunbar had selected 16 high schools to field-test the software. By February 2013, the first trials began.

To those who blanch at Coleman’s vision of making academics a spectator sport, Kelley says the focus of Arete, as with the rowers’ fitness test, is on helping students achieve “personal best” milestones, a strategy that most schools rarely use. “Once kids see they’re getting better, it just perpetuates improvement,” he said. When I met Kelley, he was working on a tool that would allow spectators to view Arete matches live online. He said he hoped that would “bring enough glory to the math department, or enough glory to the math students, that everybody else says, ‘I’d like to try this, too.’”