September 1, 2011
Education startups are popping up everywhere, but education is still a slow-moving, tradition-heavy space. Boston startup iCreate to Educate, which produces movie-making software for the classroom, has experienced this firsthand.
“The education market is so difficult to penetrate, particularly when you’re bootstrapping,” says founder Melissa Pickering, who previously managed operations at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. “Teachers are inundated with stuff.”
To market to time-strapped teachers and underfunded schools, iCreate crafted a freemium desktop app called SAM Animation to help students learn math and science. Students design stop-motion videos using photos from a webcam, chronicling subjects like the life cycle of a butterfly or a liquid turning into gas. Teachers can then identify misunderstood concepts and adapt their lessons. Because the interface is intuitive, they don’t waste time on training.
Like Tech4Learning’s Frames video software, SAM Animation is designed to let students both be creative and demonstrate learning. “We started to give students a way of representing and expressing their ideas in math and science,” says Pickering, who founded iCreate in 2010 and was chosen as a 2011 Mass High Tech “Woman to Watch.”
iCreate also sells webcams for $40, and students can use items lying around the classroom as props. As a result – even if schools choose to purchase the entire package, with webcams, kits, and workshops for teachers – they can bring SAM Animation to the entire school for under $2,000.
The software began as a project at Tufts University, supported by a $500,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation. This meant plenty of testing in and feedback from real K-12 classrooms. And early this year, iCreate participated in the four-month-long Kauffman Education Venture Program, gaining experienced advisors and $35,000, equity-free.
Pickering also stressed the benefits of a hands-on approach to sales for teachers who have little time to compare products or deal with bugs. This has lead to around 40,000 downloads of the free version of SAM Animation, especially for grades three to eight and extending as far as Australia and the UK.
To top it off, SAM Animation may help more girls become intrigued by math and science. Pickering, a former Disney imagineer who wants to engage women in engineering, thinks that storytelling and being creative around these subjects make for a better learning experience. This may be particularly true for girls, as well as ESL students struggling with verbal expression.
Besides eventually developing web and iPad apps, iCreate plans to add features like journals and sounds to its desktop app and sell kits focusing on language arts. I watched some of their student videos, and sound would certainly be a welcome addition. To hear more about their plans, join us at the Tech Cocktail Boston mixer today, where iCreate is a featured startup.
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