A new iOS game looks to kickstart neuroscience education

By David Holmes , written on May 22, 2013

Published to the News desk.

No one's even surprised anymore when you mention that US students are behind other countries in math and science. Is this the new normal? Sure, there are promising signs: President Obama's 2014 budget does increase STEM education funding by 6.4% to $3.1 billion. And last month, the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association teamed up to draft a new set of science standards in hopes of bringing American students back to the top. But is more money and more standards really the answer, when three decades of standardized tests and billions of dollars have yielded such lackluster results?

That's why companies like Minneapolis' Adventium Labs, a consulting and research firm, are looking to fill in the gaps. Although the prototype for their educational iOS game iNeuron was developed with a grant from the National Institute of Health, the company is now using Kickstarter to raise funds to commercialize the product for teachers across the country. It's looking to raise $25,000 to revamp a rough but endearing prototype it started building before the iPad even existed. Developed in partnership with neuroscience researchers from the University of Minnesota, iNeuron teaches the basics of neuroscience by having students connect different kinds of synapses to complete various brain functions. It looks like one part educational portal, one part puzzle game; Encarta meets Candy Crush.

Because the game is only in prototype, I wasn't able to play it myself. However it drew rave reviews from the 311 pubilc high school students and 5 teachers who tested it, says the project's technology lead Martin Michalowski. Michalowski. who has a PhD in computer science, says he knew he was onto something when "Kids would keep playing even after the class was over." To ensure that students were learning the material, the team employed educational evaluators who found that in some cases, students learned more with iNeuron than they did when taught by individuals specifically trained to teach neuroscience.

Which brings up to a good point: Why neuroscience? Why not chemistry or history or some other mainstay of American education? "Neuroscience is at the center of a lot of topics high school students need to learn," Michalowski says, including math, biology, and psychology. He isn't alone in thinking this: Neuroscience is included in the Next Generation Science Standards that 26 states are looking to implement by 2015. And that's one of the keys to marketing this to teachers. Sure, there are a lot of  challenges of reforming education from the bottom-up. But in this case, Adventium Labs has created a tool that addresses a brand new need for teachers where few solutions already exist.

So if Adventium already has this awesome game, what do they need $25,000 in Kickstarter cash for? Right now, iNeuron is not a standalone project, and its deployment requires Michalowski to put in a lot of time to meet with teachers beforehand and hang out nearby while the kids play in case something breaks. Furthermore, Michalowski doesn't have much experience building commercial-grade software. "It's pretty close but it's not something I'm comfortable putting on the App Store." Dammit, Jim, he's a doctor, not an app developer. And finally, the Kickstarter will help his team acquire customers for his product, a practice that's very much in vogue lately.

Michalowski says iNeuron is only the beginning, and that Adventium Labs is spinning out the team that worked on it into a separate organization called Andamio Games. But the funding model used here is hardly ideal. Thanks to sequestration, NIH funding is expected to fall by $1.71 billion, making grants even harder to come by. And of course Kickstarter funds are hardly guaranteed. When Andamio builds its next educational app, Michalowski may look to raise venture funding then make money by selling and licensing its games.

If Michalowski is successful in commercializing iNeuron, he will have done so by combining government-funding, private innovation, and crowdfunding. And while that might not sound like an easy or repeatable model for others to follow, it reflects the whatever-it-takes approach many are using to reinvent education.