Mystery Science tackles STEM education gap at the source, putting curiosity back in elementary schools

By Michael Carney , written on May 21, 2014

From The News Desk

The US is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It’s a worrying trend for a nation whose world-leading economy is built on innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in a time where technology is permeating every crevice of our lives.

Our high school graduates now rank 30th globally in math and 23rd in science. Less than one third of US bachelor degrees are now awarded to science graduates, compared to 61 percent and 51 percent respectively in Japan and China. And in 2009, for the first time, more than 50 percent of US patents were awarded to non-US companies. In the same year, just 29 percent of research papers were published by US scientists, down from 40 percent in 1981.

Mystery Science is a Bay Area startup committed to fixing this gap by reinventing the way we teach kids the sciences. Founded by former Facebook Product Manager Keith Schach and LePort Schools Science Director Doug Peltz, the company has raised an undisclosed round of seed funding from Learn Capital, NewSchool Ventures, 500 Startups, and LePort Schools.

Today, Mystery Science is peeling back the curtain on its Web-based education platform and inviting teachers and parents around the country to try the product for free.

“Our ultimate goal is to increase the level of scientific innovation in America, but first we’ll start with disrupting education,” Schacht says. “If you spend 1,000 hours learning most skills it’s enough to make you a semi-expert. Yet kids leave our science classrooms knowing almost nothing. In many ways science education has become mostly vocabulary class. Then we expect them to make critical everyday decisions like, should you vaccinate your kids, eat foods treated with pesticides, or (how to) fix a faulty internet connection.”

Mystery Science is focused on elementary and middle school students (K-8th grades). The company aims to reintroduce the mystery, curiosity, and creative problem solving to science class that’s been lost amid all that vocabulary memorization.

“Every scientific fact that they teach in schools started out as a mystery that someone noticed and was curious enough to explore,” says Peltz. “To really teach science you need to go back to the beginning and recreate the problem that led to that discovery, so that you can build appreciation for why this stuff is cool. We’re in the process of cataloging every scientific conclusion taught in K-8 grades and building lessons around the underlying mystery that inspired those discoveries.”

At its core, Mystery Science is a content library, delivered via the Web to classroom teachers and homeschool parents. Each lesson is broken down into an introductory video that sets up the mystery to be explored, and a hands-on lesson that allows students to recreate the problem-solving that lead to today’s scientific conclusions.

The product has just completed an eight week beta test in 12 elementary school and 12 home-school classrooms around the nation, receiving rave reviews from teachers, students, and parents, according to Peltz. Now the goal is to expand this trial to as many classrooms as possible over the next year. The complete 3rd grade curriculum will be available by the end of summer ahead of the upcoming school year, and the company hopes to have a full K-8 offering by the beginning of the 2015 school year.

“While most education startups are focused on raising the average by repackaging existing good materials and making them more accessible, we’re more interested in raising the bar by developing better materials,” Schacht says.

Mystery Science has yet to finalize its pricing or business model, but the goal is to make the product affordable, both on an individual lesson basis and when purchased as a complete curriculum, Schacht says. The company plans to take a bottom up approach, selling directly to teachers first with the hope that its product will be used to supplement existing course materials before looking to sell to school districts or state boards of education.

“Yes we’re targeting public schools, but this is not a replacement curriculum,” Peltz says. “Every school and every teacher has a supplements budget that we’re targeting. It’s the first time that the majority of teachers have a TV, an internet connection, and a projector in their classroom, meaning it’s the first time classrooms are ripe for over-the-top content delivery.”

The obvious challenge facing any company trying to sell into schools is the lack of education funding and the overly bureaucratic quagmire that is the curriculum development and procurement process. And regardless of Peltz’s assertions, many teachers are struggling to buy basic supplies like paper and pencils, let alone state mandated textbooks. Buying some fancy digital supplements often occupies the lowest rung on Maslow's Hierarchy of (educational) Needs.

“We ran some early experiments, because we thought that parents would be the best target market,” Schacht says. “We found that while they obviously care a lot, their own willingness to dedicate time and money is more limited than you’d think. The attitude is more one of outsourcing, meaning parents are thinking ‘I’ll send my kid to the best school I can afford, join the PTA, and stay on top of my kid’s teachers.’”

There’s little argument that Mystery Science’s approach is unique. And in early trials, both within Peltz’s LePort classrooms and during the recent beta test, the results have been been positive. The primary question will be whether the company can get the product in the hands of enough teachers and thus in front of enough students to make a real difference in this fight.

[Image source, Flickr]