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How Because Learning Is Using Space And Electronics To Make Learning Fun

How do you make learning about science and technology in school fun? Salt Lake City-based Because Learning (www.becauselearning.com) has figured out a way to let students run code and analyze data from satellites in space, to make STEM learning fun for students. We caught upwith CEO and founder Sunny Washington, to learn more about the company and its learning software, and how it incorporates space into lessons of interest to students.

What does Because Learning do?

Sunny Washington: The company originally started as Ardusat, with the same mission we had then as we have today. More and more students are interested in STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. To help them, what we did, is we created a partnership with a group called Spire Global, based out of San Francisco. Spire Global builds and launches tiny microsatellites with a suite of sensors, which we are able to run code on and collect data, from anywhere in the world. The idea is, we can get kids excited about STEM, by connecting them to space. That's similar to what you see with “The Martian” and what NASA is doing.. It's a great catalyst to get people interested in STEM. As we grew our company, we started working with schools, and we got lots of requests for more content, which would address things like physics, life sciences, math, and counting. So, we built a library of lesson plans around those subjects as well. Those all leverage our sensor kits to run experiments in space, with the same sensors as the space program. That's why it made sense to change the name of the company, to be an umbrella brand. Space is still a program, and we're now expanding into the other subject areas. We're also expanding into the market directly to parents.

How did you get into this area?

Sunny Washington: My background is in educational technology. I've worked in the market for the last fifteen years. I previously was at Instructure, which builds the Canvas learning software. I was one of their early employees. I got connected to Aspire Global, and they said—we always wanted our satellites to be used for educational purposes. Why don't you start a company, which is education focused, and be our partner? I didn' t know much about space at that time, but I knew a lot about education. The more I got into this, the more excited I was at the opportunity to provide anyone with the ability to run experiments on an orbiting satellite, at very low cost.

How long as your product been available?

Sunny Washington: We officially launched at the end of 2014, and raised a seed round of $1M in 2015. Today, we're in over 250 schools and 30 different countries. There has been a ton of international interest, since STEM is one of those global things. It's not just the United States that is interested in having more STEM workers, particularly as the industry has been moving more to automation. It's a huge focus everywhere. We're now working with thousands of students from all over the world.

Talk a little bit more about your expansion plans?

Sunny Washington: Right now, the expansion for us is extending out our business model for different markets. We used to just sell to schools and school districts. Now, we're offering up monthly subscriptions to our content, and giving them the sensor kit for free. We used to sell that for $150, however, there's a significant value with your subscription. We want to get more teachers hands-on with the electronics and using these tools. We're also going after parents, and the home schooled market, where STEM tools are very popular. I'm a parent myself, and I'm always looking for things that are educational. We saw a market opportunity to broaden who we go after. We thought it was time, with the rebranding, to extend our strategy.

The electronics used here look like they could be very intimidating to teachers, how do you handle that?

Sunny Washington: We've engineered our products to make it really easy to get started, so they don't think it's so intimidating to use the technology. It's a very easy process. There are just a few things to plug in and connect, and they can literally get started in only 5 minutes. We do not want them to use this as something they play with and then put aside. We want it to be continually engaging, and allow students to go moe in-depth, and get harder content, and more lessons, and even get into things like coding. Our lessons are all standards aligned, and students can learn all of the different things they need to do with science and data. The way we do that, is they load code onto our microcontroller, and stat collecting data. The code is already written and provided. However, if they want, as they get more familiar with the tools, we want them to go edit that code, try to manipulate variables, and get more exposure to the technology. A lot of times, with classrooms, if we can show that it's easy and there's no coding required, their blood pressure goes down, and they're a lot more relaxed. However, by the end of the work we're doing with them, they are coding. We've removed the barriers to get into exploring this, and allow them to get into more depth if they want.

Teachers are very busy trying to teach all they need to with existing lesson plans. How do you get them to even consider adding what you are doing to their plans?

Sunny Washington: We do that by being standards aligned. The material we cover are things that teachers have to cover anyway. We just make it more engaging and effective to teach that material. Rather than a student just reading about magnetic fields, we have an experiment which allows them to test different magnetic fields. This works very well in a traditional classroom, because they have to do this stuff anyway. Another piece which is driving this, is there's been a recent science standard change. Everyone is moving to next generation science standards. In a state like Utah, where we are, they haven't changed those standards in 20 years. The stuff they were doing before just isn't going to work. We've represented ourselves as an option that meets those standards, and makes it really interesting, providing a hand on way to learn that material for kids.

Finally, what's the biggest lesson you have learned in launching this startup?

Sunny Washington: There are a lot of them. I think the biggest lesson I've learned, which you might have heard people talk about before, is making sure as an entrepreneur you have fit. Even as an early employee at Instructure, that's nothing like having to shoulder the responsibility of being a founder. One thing I've learned, is you have to look at the experience as a whole, and stop analyzing every up and down. It's so easy to get caught up in ways to fail, and give up, and become frustrated. At the end, you've got to figure out how to accomplish your goals, and figure out how to make the journey worth it. I hope to have a positive end to this journey.

Thanks, and good luck!