Making STEM Learning Fun

Explore! Interactive, a Purdue University-affiliated startup led by Krannert alumna Amanda Thompson, (MBA ’05, PhD ’10), is ready to launch a platform that allows children to use augmented reality via mobile devices to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics while having hands-on fun.

The company’s vision is to make learning feel like play. Children simply point a mobile device such as a tablet or a smartphone at Explore! cards and begin discovering. The first set on energy challenges children to build circuits using wires, batteries and a speaker, with sparks flashing on the screen as they connect. The augmented reality makes these items appear to be floating above their cards right on their table, letting children explore STEM concepts by doing rather than by reading or watching.

For parents, the games channel their children’s love of device time toward absorbing important concepts, so as they grow older they understand and are excited by the real-world relevance of STEM.

Amanda Thompson“The Explore! platform walks children through the learning process in an engaging storyline so they have to actually internalize the concepts to execute the tasks,” Thompson says. “It makes the lesson come to life for children.”

Children can either complete challenges or build their own circuits in “create” mode. That allows students to touch, move and experiment with a concept and practice skills, maximizing concept mastery while enjoying themselves. Parents or teachers don’t have to worry about children losing or breaking parts. The Explore! cards are about 3 inches by 3 inches and are actually QR codes in disguise. Eventually they will cover biology, physics, engineering and more.

The platform is geared toward kids in grades 3 through 6, a demographic that Thompson knows well as the mother of two young children. “We're aiming for the education-oriented parents of curious kids,” she says. “They are the types of parents who are going to want their children to make the most of their device time.”

The company’s founder is Wesley Virt, who developed the idea for the platform while he was an undergraduate at Wabash College by taking advantage of the Purdue Foundry. Additional team members involved in the founding included Chris Palermo, a senior in Purdue’s Krannert School of Management, and Shamila Janakiraman, a graduate student, and faculty member Victoria Lowell, both of the College of Education. The company also works with the Envision Center and Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

In December 2017, Explore! Interactive won a Black Award of $20,000 from the Elevate Purdue Foundry Fund, which was followed in May with a Gold Award in the amount of $80,000. Virt says the Foundry also provided him with the help he needed to turn his idea into a business. “Entrepreneurship is a lot more than just creating a product,” Virt says. “You need people to listen to you. You need advice. You need mentors. You need resources.”

Thompson, who took the helm as chief executive officer in January, is among those resources. As the cofounder and former chief financial officer of Amplified Sciences LLC, Thompson is a startup veteran and serves as entrepreneur in residence at Purdue Foundry, where she works with foundry clients to progress from the ideation phase all the way to venture funding.

Her expertise is in identifying, communicating and estimating the value proposition of the business idea from a financial and strategic perspective, as well as building an operational plan, financial model and valuation for the new start-up. She also assists in preparing for and understanding interactions with external funders.

Although Explore! Interactive is still in the development phase, Thompson is playing to win. Under her leadership, it won the April 2018 edupitch competition sponsored by SDI Innovations, the Purdue Foundry and Discovery Park, beating out nine other finalists to receive $4,500 and a startup package from Gutwein Law as well as services from Heath CPA and Associates of Lafayette. They also took home $30,000 in cash and services by winning the Schurz Communications Award at the Notre Dame McCloskey Business Plan Competition.

“We were thrilled to win the edupitch competition and to have the opportunity to build a relationship with SDI Innovations,” Thompson says. “The funding will be used to produce and package our first STEM-augmented reality game set, ‘What is Energy’ to meet pre-order demand and targeted summer sales. Our goal this year is to be a top stocking stuffer for the 2018 holiday season, so put us on your list for your favorite budding scientist!”

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